Here Comes COVID-19 Tracking Apps and Privacy Compensations

WASHINGTON: As governments around the world consider how to monitor new outbreaks as they reopen their partnerships, many are starting to bet on smartphone apps to help stop the pandemic.

But his decisions about what technologies to use, and to what extent they allow authorities to peer into privacy, are highlighting some awkward tradeoffs between privacy protection and public health.

There are conflicting interests, said Tina White, a Stanford University researcher who first introduced a privacy protection approach in February.

Governments and public health agencies want to be able to track people to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but people are less likely to download a voluntary app if it is intrusive, he said.

Infectious disease outbreaks boil down to a simple mantra: test, track, and isolate.

Today, that means identifying people who test positive for the new coronavirus, tracking other people who might have infected, and preventing further spread of everyone who might be contagious.

That second step requires an army of health workers to question coronavirus carriers about recent contacts so that those people can be analyzed and potentially isolated.

Smartphone apps could speed up that process by collecting data on your movements and alerting you if you have spent time near a confirmed coronavirus carrier.

The more detailed that data is, the more it could help regional governments identify and contain emerging disease hot spots.

But data collected by governments can also be abused by governments or their private sector partners.

Some countries and local governments are issuing voluntary government-designed applications that make the information directly available to public health authorities.

In Australia, more than 3 million people have downloaded an application promoted by the Prime Minister, who compared it to the ease of applying sunscreen and said that more application downloads would generate a more liberated economy and society.

Utah is the first state of EE. USA It takes a similar approach, developed by a social media startup that previously focused on helping young people hang out with close friends.

Both applications record a digital trace of strangers that an individual encountered. Utah's goes even further, using the location of a device to help track which restaurants or stores a user has visited.

The app is a tool to help activate the memory of the person who is positive so that we can more easily identify where they have been, who they have been in contact with, if they choose to allow that, said Angela Dunn, Utah State Epidemiologist.

A competitive approach to development by technology giants Apple and Google limits the information collected and anonymizes what it provides so that personalized monitoring is not possible.

Apple and Google have lobbied for public health agencies to adopt their privacy-oriented model, offering an application-building interface that they say will work seamlessly on billions of phones when the software is deployed at some point in time. may.

Germany and a growing number of European countries have aligned with that approach, while others, such as France and the United Kingdom, have called for increased government access to app data.

Most coronavirus tracking apps rely on Bluetooth, a decades-old short-range wireless technology, to locate other nearby phones that are running the same app.

Bluetooth applications keep a temporary record of the signals they find. If a person using the app is later confirmed to have COVID-19, public health authorities can use that stored data to identify and notify other people who may have been exposed.

Apple and Google say apps built to their specifications will work on most iPhone and Android devices, eliminating compatibility issues.

They have also banned governments from making their applications mandatory and are incorporating privacy protections to keep stored data out of the reach of government and companies and alleviate surveillance concerns.

For example, these applications rely on encrypted peer to peer signals sent from phone to phone; These are not stored in government databases and are designed to hide individual identities and connections.

Public health officials are not even informed; These applications would notify users directly of their possible exposure and urge them to be tested.

In the United States, developers are releasing their applications directly to state and local governments. In Utah, social media company Twenty sold to state officials in an approach that combines Bluetooth with GPS satellite signals.

That would allow trained health workers to help connect the dots and uncover previously hidden clusters of infection.

Automatic alerts are unlikely to be enough, said Jared Allgood, chief strategy officer for Twenty and a Utah resident, citing estimates that peer-to-peer models would require most people to participate to be effective.

North and South Dakota are looking for a similar model after a local startup reused its existing Bison Tracker app, originally designed to connect fans of North Dakota State University Athletic teams.

Regardless of the approach, none of these applications will be effective in breaking the chains of viral infections, unless countries like the US. USA They can speed up coronavirus testing and hire more healthcare workers for manual disclosure.

Another big limitation: Many people, particularly in vulnerable populations, do not carry smartphones.

In Singapore, for example, a large population of migrant workers lives in narrow dormitories, earning around $ 15 a day, and fueling the city's previously booming construction industry, but smartphone use in this group is low.