Contact-Tracing Apps May Lack Limits: Digital Rights and Privacy Experts
Mon, April 19, 2021

Contact-Tracing Apps May Lack Limits: Digital Rights and Privacy Experts


Virus containment is presently the best weapon that the world has in the fight against the spread of Covid-19. / Photo by joshimerbin via Shutterstock


Virus containment is presently the best weapon that the world has in the fight against the spread of Covid-19. The moment an infected person is found, they are placed under self-quarantine, and experts trace their previous whereabouts to test other people they’ve come into close contact with and disinfect the areas they’ve been to. One solution introduced by some countries, including China, South Korea, Singapore, and Israel, is to use smartphones to track people who may have been exposed to the virus.

While there is no denying that contact-tracing apps are necessary to stop the spread of the virus, digital rights and privacy experts worry that the same technology may violate the rights of citizens and their data may be used once the health crisis is resolved.


Coronavirus and cybersecurity

Privacy experts have cited how the relaxation of people’s privacy rights on data collection after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States may be the possible outcome after Covid-19 and thus call for a better means of contact-tracing.

In a study titled “The Aftermath: 9/11 and the War on Privacy, Rights and Humanity,” it was explained how the trauma of the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 left the US feeling helplessly uncertain. This was manifested in the array of legislation and reforms passed in the post-9/11 era. The Customs and Border Patrol agency employed surveillance drones to ensure safety. However, in the quest for information collection and human intelligence, it created vulnerabilities in morality, privacy, and national security as ironic as it may sound.

The Pennsylvania-based law firm Cozen O'Connor’s co-chair of the privacy and data security practice group Matthew Siegel said via threat intelligence platform Dark Reading that keeping people safe should not mean giving up their privacy. It is understandable that amid the crisis, everyone is doing what they can to protect the citizens. The concern, though, is that we have to ensure that the solutions we use are limited to the timeframe of the pandemic and that its effects should not emerge after the pandemic, Siegel added.



Manual contact-tracing vs. use of mobile apps

Former research engineer Robert Lemos also opined that manual contact-tracing is susceptible to missing people, who may be potentially exposed to the virus, and the process is very slow whereas using mobile apps speed the process. The technology also helps achieve more accurate contact-tracing but it has downsides too. For instance, if the identity of the Covid-19 carrier is revealed to the public, they could be put in danger or be ostracized. Some argue that the public health risk of people outweighs privacy, but few citizens are willing to take part in innovative contact-tracing without privacy.

Chaos Computer Club, Europe’s largest association of hackers and digital rights experts with 7,700 registered members, argued that contact-tracing will only be effective if it is done voluntarily and for citizens to volunteer, their privacy should be preserved. The group said that legal or organizational hurdles against data access could not be considered as sufficient in the present “state-of-emergency thinking.” The basic principle is that users are not required to trust any institution or person with their data but should enjoy tested and documented technical security. One institution that followed this approach is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It created prototype apps for iOS and Android phones, allowing users to discover whether they have come in contact with an infected individual without sharing information on their movements.


MIT’s coronavirus app

Called Private Kit: Safe Paths (PK: SP), the app utilizes the user’s location data to know who they’ve crossed paths with and at what time. The app also alerts users if they’ve crossed paths with Covid-19 carriers without intervention from a third party, like the government. This is why users’ privacy is protected as the government will not access the location trails of every individual.

Other universities and companies in the US have used people’s data to shed light on how the coronavirus spreads. Health technology company Kinsa, known to manufacture smart thermometers, for instance, has published a US map that indicates the number of sick people in an area. They call it a health weather map. Location data startup Unacast also rated every state in the country using tracking technology. The rate is based on how well the citizens are limiting their movements.

If a sound policy and legal framework is not prioritized, the proliferation of these kinds of apps pose a danger to people’s privacy, Siegel added.



Willingness to use the app in measuring health metrics

Database company Statista shared the percentage of US adults who were willing to use an app to measure health metrics, by gender, in 2017. Out of the 962 respondents, 18 years old and older, 58% female and 59% male respondents answered they “can imagine using it” while only 16% female and 15% male respondents said they “won’t use it.” There are 8% of the respondents who said they use the app to measure their health metrics regularly and 12% said they use it occasionally. Only 6% of both female and male respondents answered they have used the app only once.

In November 2019, 20% of men and 17% of women of US adults said they use a health app. By age group, 25% of health app users in the US age 18 to 34 while 24% age 35 to 54 use a health app. The data was based on a survey of 1,015 US adults published on charts and data site Marketing Charts.

In France, digital minister Cédric O and health minister Olivier Véran also recently announced that the government is working on an app that will help slow the spread of the virus. This is a part of the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project. But since the use of mobile apps in tracking the diseases is a sensitive issue in their continent, some nonprofit organizations have urged the governments to acknowledge that human rights should also be respected. EU privacy experts have also proposed a decentralized system for contract-tracing. Under such a design, there is no need for pseudonymized IDs to be centralized.

Collecting health information is invaluable to more swiftly determine and isolate potentially infected people in a country. However, authorities should also be mindful that pooled data pose a privacy risk, making it more difficult to persuade people to trust the contract-tracing system. This highlights the importance of striking a balance between privacy and health interest.


Collecting health information is invaluable to more swiftly determine and isolate potentially infected people in a country. / Photo by via Shutterstock