Coronavirus Tracing Apps Conflict With Privacy

Smartphone apps designed to trace people at risk of Covid-19 infection have attracting criticism in Europe and the US for their potential as surveillance and spying tools to be used by governments.  

Scientists and researchers from more than 25 countries have published an open letter urging governments not to abuse such technology to spy on their people and warning of risks in an approach championed by Germany.

More than a hundreds of the British researchers and scientists have expressed concern over privacy and security resulting from 'mission creep' as the UK's government plans for using smartphones to trace and combat coronavirus slowly get going.

Much of our pre-coronavirus lives may be reclaimable with some modifications around how we work, socialise and travel, however in one crucial way the post-pandemic landscape will be very different as an individual’s autonomy and data privacy may be lost as mobile telephones are used for surveillance.

This will have important consequences for the relationship not just between citizens and governments, but also between consumers and businesses.

The risk of the coming end of privacy is attributable to the success of virus tracing apps in South Korea and Taiwan which have both been effective in flattening the Covid-19 curve by digitally tracking infected persons. No government was using dispersed databases as extensively to fight the spread of the disease as South Korea. Before an explosive outbreak in its worker dormitories, Singapore earned praise for TraceTogether, which claims to be the first Bluetooth contact-tracing app covering an entire nation. The 1.4 million users represent roughly a fourth of the island’s population.

Governments want access to phones, with or without informed consent and turning the clock back will be difficult, if not impossible. Where boundaries between private and public are thin to begin with, a pandemic can make them disappear. 

There have been assurances from various governments, including those in France, India and Singapore, that tracing  Apps will go away once the outbreak is contained, but no legal guarantees.  

  • The Singaporean app records physical proximity in an anonymised form on smartphones. Minimal data is stored on servers. The national TraceTogether’s App building blocks are in the public domain although he source code of  is yet to be disclosed.
  • As India reopens after a 43-day lockdown, it’s mandatory, first for public-sector employees and now for private-sector workers and company bosses are liable to ensure their workers download the app, though nobody is accountable for misuse of data.  The Indian government recently denied a French security researcher’s claim that the privacy of ninety million Indians is at stake. 

An analysis of China’s Alipay Health Code software, which uses various data sources of data to categorise a person’s health status with a colour code, found that some information is shared with the police.

One consequence of Covid-19 will be to erode privacy in the name of public health. European data protection laws will try to ensure that the emergency collection and processing of personal information is legally accountable and for a limited purpose but the British parliament’s human rights committee says it isn’t convinced that the National Health Service’s tracing App protects privacy.

Where they exist, robust institutions could will offer resistance to surveillance but  in many places the individual’s autonomy has already become a virus casualty. Poorer countries where consumers have only recently started going online will see states insist on devices that come with pre-loaded tracking apps. 

Whether sensitive data will be kept safely on devices or stored on a central server in a way that might allow a bad actor to reconstruct a person’s social activity, keeping a record of where they have been and when and who they meet. will become an urgent question as efforts to control the Coronavirus extend around the world.  

Bloomberg:      ZDNet:     SCMP:       LA Times:   

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