Is technology the answer to the COVID-19 pandemic or a threat to privacy? Developers are working on creating apps to track the spread of COVID-19 in hopes that it will help stem the flood of the pandemic in the United States. However, this also raises serious privacy concerns.
These apps range from hands-off with data protections in place to downright invasive. China’s COVID-19 tracking system, for example, tracks data far beyond location—including identity and online payment history. This allows local police to watch for those who break quarantine rules, notes the MIT Technology Review.
Google and Apple—who normally compete rather than collaborate in the tech market—have teamed up to work on a COVID-19 tracking app for the United States. These apps will allow Android and IOS devices to automatically track your interactions without any action from either party. These track-and-trace methods aim to keep infection levels low, but it also begs the question of how this information will be used.
Intellectual property lawyer Eric Ludwig notes that these apps may infringe on the Health Information Privacy Protection Act (HIPPA).
“We're allowing tech companies like Samsung, software makers like Apple and Google, or even companies like Facebook access to information concerning individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19,” says Ludwig. “I have to ask what data is going to be collected and how it's going to be used. How do you ensure that the identity of the patient is secure when the whole goal is to go and identify those who have been in contact with the patients and lock them down to too?”
In California, they are actively doing contact tracing to limit the spread of COVID-19. While those efforts currently focus on reports from medical professionals, they will likely involve apps in the future.
“People in the government and other parties reach out to individuals who test positive to get ahold of their contacts, friends, and family. They’ll also get a list of all the places the COVID-19 positive person visited. Now suddenly every COVID patient is revealed as being positive to the entire world, and there's nothing private about that health information, which I think is a violation,” adds Ludwig.
In addition to raising privacy concerns, the inexact methods of tracking proximity call into question the efficacy of the apps. The apps evaluate the kind of interaction to assess the level of risk using Bluetooth signal strength to estimate the distance between two people. However, according to Science Magazine, the signal’s strength can be influenced by things that have nothing to do with distance.
Researchers at Trinity College Dublin found that the signal strength sometimes behaved in predictable ways, such as being stronger if the phones were set on a table rather than in a person’s pocket. In other cases, it was less predictable. For example, the strength of the signal increased as people moved farther apart, which was potentially caused by reflection off of metal surfaces such as supermarket shelves. This creates worries that the apps will fail to alert people to interactions that could lead to infection while also flooding them with false alarms.
Other countries are already utilizing the software with varying degrees of success, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t considering the privacy effects. Norway has halted the use of their coronavirus contact tracing app, Smittestopp, after criticism from the Norwegian Data Protection Authority.
While Google and Apple have announced an approach to the app that seems to mitigate the privacy risks, there are still concerns about the way apps will be used in the United States. The chances of a false positive results from apps compound worries.
“It seems like you're smearing and targeting people with COVID and almost discriminating against them,” adds Ludwig. “I think could have a reverse effect of causing people not to get tested and not to reveal their identities—not to come forward for fear of embarrassing others or inconveniencing family or friends with interrogation and possible quarantine efforts.”
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