More countries are starting to leverage the power of smartphone apps to curb the coronavirus, explained Nature, a multidisciplinary science journal. When the apps installed in these phones are close together, an exchange of information occurs to create a log of who you were near with. These “contacts” will be notified if they have been close to an infected individual.
These apps complement a country’s COVID-19 control strategies such as isolation, testing, social distancing, and contact tracing. However, smartphone apps cannot be a replacement for the above measures or thousands of contract-tracing teams.
Americans Support Privacy Rights
Cybernews, a source of breaking technology news, product reviews, research, and more, commissioned a survey in April 2020 involving a random representative sample of 1,255 adults in the US. When asked which of the following best represents their support for personal privacy rights, 65.10% said “strongly favor,” 23.75% said “somewhat favor,” and 9.80 answered “neutral.” 0.72% said “somewhat oppose” and 0.64% said “strongly oppose.”
In the respondents’ opinion, 52.11% said retaining their personal privacy is more important than giving their personal privacy to the authorities to combat the spread of the coronavirus (47.89%). When asked if they approved the use of controversial practices by the authorities like facial recognition and phone data collection to curb the spread of the outbreak, even at the expense of their personal privacy, 65.42% said they disapproved while 34.58% approved of such measures.
When asked if they would grant permission to an app created by a private company to track their location and reduce their insurance premium rates as long they are obeying the government lockdown, 43.19% said no, 27.33% said yes, and 29.48% said they were unsure. If the respondents contracted COVID-19, 47.97% said they would not grant permission to a state-sponsored app to display their location to other residents in their city. Only 30.36% approved of it while 21.67% were not sure.
While 36.25% would grant permission to a state-sponsored app to analyze location data transmitted by their phone to determine how many people are obeying government lockdown, 41.99% refused for an app to analyze their location data. However, 21.75% were unsure about this.
When asked how the respondents would view other people who refused to obey a government lockdown to give up their location data in a city or region affected by the pandemic, 29.64% said they would view them negatively (versus 16.49% of those who answered “very negatively”) while 9.40% would view them positively (versus 7.57% of those who chose “very positively”). Only 36.89% said they would view those who would not obey a government lockdown neither positively or negatively.
When asked who should operate the tracking software and/or data hardware to combat the virus’s spread, 36.73% said neither, 32.67% said it should be government agencies, and 9% said it should be private companies. Only 21.59% of respondents answered that tracking software and/or data hardware should be operated by private companies and government agencies.
37.85% said they were somewhat worried about how tracking measures to contain the virus could lead to greater government surveillance. 38.86% were very worried and 16.97% were not sure about it. However, only 9.32% said they were not worried at all. When asked how worried are the respondents that such tracking measures will persist post-pandemic, 46.53% admitted that they were very worried and 32.75% said they were somewhat worried. Only 7.89% said they were not worried about it and the remaining 12.83% were not sure.
Safety In Using COVID-19 Apps Should be Upheld
These apps need to follow the highest standards of safety and efficacy; however, countries are developing these apps independently. There are no global standards, which is something users should be concerned about. Some states are using phones to record data such as age, location, names, and more. For instance, users of Australia’s COVIDSafe app will be alerted by health officials if a user were in close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.
Germany’s app, which is still in development, will store coronavirus data on users’ phones. Egypt’s app will use a phone’s location services to notify users if they have been close to anyone with the virus. Using these apps is voluntary. The apps are developed by governments in collaboration with tech companies and researchers. However, there has been little consultation since users are being requested to give up their personal information. There is also skepticism regarding the effectiveness of these apps. Governments are excited to state its benefits, but the risks are not that emphasized.
Quality of Information Is Questionable
Katina Michael at Arizona State University and Roba Abbas at the University of Wollongong, Australia, said the issue with COVID-19 apps is with the quality of data, according to Adam Vaughan of New Scientist, a science news and articles website.
Michael and Abbas understood that most apps being considered would record contacts every five minutes, which might entail missed infectious contacts. Apps linked to official validated tests are more likely to give accurate results. Meanwhile, alerts based on a self-diagnosis that turns out to be a false positive could be corrected. If incorrect information has been given to a large group of contacts, it would lead to unnecessary alarm and people could be sent into isolation for weeks.
Privacy Is An Issue We Have to Be Concerned About
App developers should also consider the level of trust between citizens and governments, how privacy is preserved, voluntary installation of apps, and how to safeguard people who might not own a smartphone or the ability to install apps. This is likely to include vulnerable, elderly people.
Luc Rocher, Julien M. Hendrickx, and Yves-Alexandre de Mongjoye of Nature revealed that it is possible to re-identify people even if anonymized and aggregated data sets are incomplete. This shows that it is much easier to identify people from anonymized data sets. In fact, researchers are pointing out how some countries decide to store data centrally.
Earlier in April, nearly 300 researchers signed an open letter reminding governments that data stored in various places such as a user’s phone are more secure, adding that storing data in one location is more likely to be hacked. Contract-tracing apps are useful despite these issues. But Michael and Abbas reminded, “Contact-tracing apps are likely to be utilised as a means for fighting the spread of covid-19. However, they cannot be used in isolation. The apps themselves will not contain the spread.”
There are more issues that need to be addressed regarding contact-tracing apps. Governments should acknowledge the risks of using these apps, not only the benefits. These apps should not replace testing and other safety measures, but they should be used to augment or complement the ways governments combat the virus.