Debate intensifies over how much data is needed
  • Governments are turning to contact tracing apps to curtail pandemic, raising concerns over privacy
  • Governments of all levels are seeking apps that track people’s movements.
  • The issue of privacy may continue to be a sore one as technology enables easier data collection.

The growing desire to end the global lockdown caused by the deadly coronavirus pandemic is leading governments to turn to apps that will track everyone’s movements — and that is giving privacy advocates panic attacks.

Tech giants Apple and Google, which control the world’s two most popular smartphone operating systems, introduced software that will enable public health apps to track people who come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, which officials have said is key to stopping the disease’s spread. But tools and apps that are being used to collect data on people’s whereabouts can be misused by governments, privacy advocates say.

“Have you heard about #ContactTracing?” tweeted a Twitter user with the name “George Orwell’s Ghost.” “It’s Orwellian new-speak for planned 24/7 state surveillance.”

Several dozen countries, states, universities and companies are racing to develop and begin using digital contact tracing tools. Supporters of the apps are relying heavily on the willingness of people to be tracked. Government officials point to Oxford University research that the epidemic could be stopped if 60% of the population participated in contact tracing.

That’s not necessary, said Po-Shen Loh, an associate professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University and developer of the NOVID anonymous contact tracing app.

“The bulk of the transmission isn’t happening in the chance encounter at the store,” Loh told Karma. “Most is worker-to-worker and family-member-to-family-member.”

“All I have to do is convince my family and coworkers to install the app,” he added. “Once my close circle has it, I’m safe.”

The NOVID app augments Bluetooth with ultrasonic technology for more accuracy. The app doesn’t ask users for any personal information. Instead, each user is assigned a random ID at the time of installation. About 2,000 people have downloaded it so far, Loh said.

Loh began developing the app in mid-March, partly because he was concerned that governments would try to collect more information than they needed to contain the pandemic. There’s no reason for such draconian measures, he said.

“Anonymous tracing could reduce the spread voluntarily without losing privacy,” Loh insisted.

The U.K. began a trial of a coronavirus contact tracing app on the Isle of Wight on May 5 to mixed results. Some residents declined to download the app, while others supported it as part of an effort at restarting the economy.

Privacy International, a U.K.-based non-profit group, said in an analysis that, despite the government’s assurances of privacy, the app includes mandatory permission requests to collect both GPS and network-based location information to enable the Bluetooth technology to work. That can open the door to misuse in the future.

U.S. states are hiring thousands of people who would help track down individuals and locations that an infected person may have exposed to the virus. Massachusetts last month was the first state to announce a statewide contact tracing program, with initial plans to train 1,000 workers.

California plans to hire 10,000 people to help track the coronavirus, while New York says it may recruit as many as 17,000 tracers, depending on the projected number of cases the state has.

Some governments are taking a harder stance to get citizens to comply with the high-tech methods. In some areas of India, residents can face a fine or jail time if they don’t download the government’s Aarogya Setu app. 

“India officially becoming a police state now?” tweeted Anja Kovacs, founder of the Internet Democracy Project.

Ron Rock, CEO of Microshare, which provides a Bluetooth-based “Universal Contact Tracing” service to companies, said he expects concerns over how much data a government should be allowed to collect to continue for a long time.

The “issue of privacy is not going to be resolved in our lifetimes,” he told Karma.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images