Covid-19 has wreaked havoc around the globe, and as countries begin to open for business, contact tracing is now becoming part of the vernacular, just like social-distancing.
Epidemiologists believe that tracing is important to identify all the potential contacts that an infected person may have had, in order to quarantine and control their ability to further spread the disease. Tracing can either be done manually by employing hundreds of thousands of human tracers – and accept the additional exposure and costs associated with such an endeavor – or as a society we leverage technology and accept digital contact tracing, at the expense of some part of our privacy.
Why is this a controversial issue?
Smartphone technology holds the best prospects for digital contact tracing by using location data that is part of the device most of us have in our pockets. Smartphone penetration in most first-world countries is high and makes such a solution possible. Using GPS or Bluetooth, one would be able to reverse the movement of an infected person and identity those that may have been in proximity, thus allowing precautionary measures to be enacted. The question is whether an acceptable balance between the privacy of individuals and the safety of society can in fact be achieved.
In South Korea, highlighted as a poster child for a country that has been able to corral the virus, a variety of digital footprints along with CCTV and even credit card transactions, have been used for successful contact tracing. To do this, the people of South Korean downloaded and installed an app on their phones and allowed such monitoring to take place. At least 29 other countries in the world have developed similar Covid tracking apps. Most have been installed voluntarily, while some have been installed with government pressure. In China, an app called Alipay Health Code automatically assigns color codes to people based on their exposure and testing status.
The concern is that this kind of surveillance installed during a pandemic can also be used by an authoritarian government to exploit its people. One way to deal with this is to make such surveillance temporary.
But here in the USA, as in Europe, data privacy is a huge concern. Europe has led the world in data privacy regulations with GDPR enacted in March 2018 which has punitive financial fines for companies that violate strict privacy norms. California has enacted a similar data privacy regulation CCPA earlier this year.
The Google-Apple tracing solution.
In the USA, an unusual partnership between Google and Apple, cut-throat competitors under normal circumstances, is about to release a digital contact tracing application for Covid-19 in the next few weeks. It will function as shown here:
According to the companies, the system Apple and Google are developing will not share your location information with either company or the people who encounter you. An Apple spokesman further clarified that the system would be capable of being disabled on a regional basis when no longer needed.
Nonetheless, there are many privacy advocates and critics who point to the manner in which some of these tech companies have previously monetized and used personal data as a red flag. Others acknowledge that these companies already have a mountain of personal data on all of us, and in this emergent circumstance, this may be the most efficient way to control infections.
“If you seek to assure the public, make your stake in this project personal,” wrote Sen. Hawley, a prominent tech critic, addressing the CEOs of Google and Apple. “Make a commitment that you and other executives will be personally liable if you stop protecting privacy, such as by granting advertising companies access to the interface once the pandemic is over.” No response from either company on this yet.
Voices in other countries echo similar divergent themes.
- A letter from 300 global privacy experts, warned that contact tracing apps “can otherwise be repurposed to enable unwarranted discrimination and surveillance”. The EU’s digital chief Margrethe Vestager has sought to allay privacy fears over the use of certain mobile applications in the fight against the coronavirus.
- “If we want to emerge from these restrictions on contact, then we need another tool,” said Christian Drosten, head of the Virology Institute of Berlin’s Charité Hospital and the public face of Germany’s coronavirus response. “We really need this app and we need to persuade as many people as possible to use it.”
- Thorsten Frei, an MP for Merkel’s party in Germany, has proposed granting tax credits to those who take part.
- In Hong Kong, those arriving in the airport are given electronic tracking bracelets that must be synced to their home location through their smartphone’s GPS signal.
- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is urging citizens to waive privacy rights and participate in the country’s pandemic tracking efforts.
- German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said tracking apps can only be used voluntarily. The German government now favors the Apple/Google contact tracing approach for the coronavirus over the rival one proposed by the European Union.
- France publicly called for Apple and Google to weaken privacy protections around digital contact tracing after its government admitted that its current plans would not work without changes to smartphone operating systems.
- In Argentina, those who are caught breaking quarantine are being forced to download an app that tracks their location.
- The use by Israel’s police of mobile-phone location data to enforce quarantine has been halted because of privacy concerns.
- New Zealand’s prime minister had a lower-tech recommendation, keep a daily written journal of where you went.
Researchers think that we would need at least 60% of the population to use the app, for it to be effective. However, the resistance to downloading such an app is a major concern for privacy advocates.
Is the price of privacy too high when comes to a virulent global pandemic?
As Charlie Warzel of the NYT, and an ardent proponent of privacy, aptly put it recently “We need to understand where everyone is at a given time so we can contain this (virus). Honestly, I am taken aback by how my principles were undermined immediately by fears for my own safety.”
When it comes to our own health, and that of societal survival, privacy seems a small price to pay. I suspect, some will disagree.