Contact Tracing: Must we sacrifice privacy for safety?

Contact Tracing Jun 22, 2020

Government developed contact tracing apps not only raise privacy concerns, but their ability to be effective falls significantly short.

There are 2 main options for contact tracing apps, Bluetooth based or location based. Bluetooth and location services allow for continuous tracking and mass surveillance, but let’s ignore the Big Brother-esque vibes for a moment and talk specifically about the functionality of said solutions.

Bluetooth

When your Bluetooth is on (👈 key detail), it is constantly broadcasting a unique stream of numbers and any person you come into contact with for more than a designated amount of time receives your stream of numbers and they yours. These numbers allow you to be identified and notified should anyone report contracting COVID19. Your app periodically checks for matches to people that have tested positive for the virus.

GPS

Location based tracking specifies where you were and provides a timestamp of when you were there, but it doesn’t specify who you came into close contact with. You may not have even crossed paths with an individual who later confirmed they had contracted COVID19 but were merely in the same place at the same time.

Additionally, this form of contact tracing requires physical contact tracers to track down individuals that may have been exposed. A person who tests positive would be required to share their location trail with contact tracers who are then responsible for tracking down all the individuals that person may have come into contact with.

Will either work?

Too many things have to happen for either of these solutions to be effective, here are the big 5.

1. Participation...a lot of it.

  • Both methods of contact tracing apps require the participation of at least 60% of the population which seems unlikely to be achievable in many parts of the world. Furthermore, with borders slowly beginning to open and tourism...dare we say...encouraged, individual government efforts are not going to solve the problem. If each government implements their own solution, how effective can any single one be?

2. False Positives...or is it negatives? 🤔

  • Testing itself isn’t 100% accurate. If testing occurs too early, someone may not test positive but may indeed have the virus.
  • Passing someone on the street vs. prolonged contact and encountering someone inside vs. outside have vastly different potential for exposure.
    • Let’s use a specific scenario, say you're sitting in a park and someone sitting 2 meters in front of you tests positive a few days later. You then recieve a notifiation that you have potentially been exposed. In reality, the chances that you contracted the virus from that person are virtually nonexistent.
    • Now, let’s consider the alternative, someone with COVID19 vacates a nearby table that hasn’t been properly sanitized, and you contract the virus. If using the Bluetooth based app, that contact would not be recorded thus eliminating the possibility of tracing the spread.

3. Technology...am I right?

  • Yes, it’s 2020, but technology still isn’t perfect. The functionality of the Bluetooth or GPS could be compromised. External factors, the subway to name one example, enhancing or blocking signals lead to inaccurate data. Additionally, turning your Bluetooth or location tracking off obviously render the apps obsolete.
  • And there's the dreaded...uh oh, my battery just died…

4. Testing...so much more of it.

  • In order for these to be effective, there needs to be significantly more testing of a far greater portion of the population. With access to tests still largely unavailable, this could become a problem and if enough tests do become available, there would be less need for such extensive tracing. Catch 22.

5. Reporting...honesty is key.

  • It’s not as simple as downloading the app. These contact tracing apps put the onus on the user to complete steps to notify other users. It’s not intended to say that people are dishonest, merely that these apps put too much pressure on the individual. We’ve heard time and time again that the virus affects people in different ways. It’s possible that one individual will only feel a slight amount of discomfort (of which the instructions are to stay home) and they are never actually tested for COVID19. This means people that have come into contact with them are never notified. No positive diagnosis, no notification, no tracing.

What will work?

There is no argument that successful contact tracing is the solution to preventing another outbreak, but the question remains, how much tracking is too much tracking? In order for contact tracing in any form to effectively stop the spread of the virus, there are a few significant considerations:

  1. User privacy must be at the forefront of any contact tracing solution.
  2. The health and safety of individuals must outweigh other potential data interests.
  3. Efforts need to be international rather than localized.
  4. Cost effectiveness is crucial. Distributing funds to develop apps that people don’t want and don’t work is senseless. Not to mention, that money could be used to…oh I don’t know, conduct more testing?
  5. Participation should be simple and the public must be given the opportunity to opt-in at regular intervals rather than agreeing to constant tracking. Thus, incentives for active social tracing are a must.

Most of us don’t have anything to hide, but that doesn’t mean we want the government with access to a detailed history of our movements. Publicly, governments are marketing with terms like decentralization (the data is stored on your phone rather than government servers), aggregation, and de-identification; however, it's difficult to decipher how these methods actually protect our privacy as it seems more of a promise against misuse of data than an inability to access it.

The whole point of the contact tracing app is to protect the public and with the level of controversy over the data collection and tracking methodology, it’s causing more harm than good. If there was ever a reason in support of globalization, this is it. Individualized government efforts and the focus on data rather than the greater good will only serve to strengthen the divide amongst nations which is not going to help us stop the spread on an international scale.

Malorie Swartz

Chief Content Creator & Main Marketer

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