Exposure detected: the COVID-19 app
The contact tracing app that aims to curb the spread of COVID-19 is raising privacy concerns
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IN JUNE, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new mobile contact tracing app that will alert you if you’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
The app, called COVID Alert and made in Canada, was (at press time) scheduled to launch in mid-July. This exposure-detecting technology should help public health agencies track the spread of the disease and thereby manage it more effectively.
However, it’s also raising privacy concerns that the data it collects will reside on the servers of big tech companies.
“It will be up to individual Canadians to decide whether to download the app or not, but the app will be most effective when as many people as possible have it,” said Trudeau, announcing the federal government’s endorsement of a product created by volunteers from Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify. Shopify made its code open source, allowing Apple and Google to collaborate with the government to create the exposure notification technology. It will run on both iOS and Android phones.
In a nutshell, here’s how it works. People who test positive for COVID-19 will be asked to upload that result onto the app using a random security code generated by the health-care provider who conducted the test.
If someone using the app comes in close contact with a person who has tested positive, they will get an encrypted (and anonymous) exposure notification sent via Bluetooth to his or her own phone informing them of this fact and suggesting that they contact their public health authority.
The goal of the app is to alert people to the possibility that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus and suggest they take appropriate measures – such as getting tested themselves or going into self-isolation for 14 days.
By warning individuals that they might have been exposed to the virus and are at risk of infection, the government hopes to curb the spread of the disease by quickly identifying these new cases and doing everything possible to minimize exposure or treat the patient in a timely manner.
It’s all meant to cut down the risk of the dreaded second wave of COVID-19, especially as economies open up and people begin returning to work.
TRUDEAU SAID that the app will make the work of contact tracing less laborious. Right now, federal and provincial governments are employing thousands of interviewers to contact each infected person by phone and then manually enter the results into a database administered by Statistics Canada.
The prime minister added that the beauty of the app lies in its simplicity. “It’s something you can just download and forget about,” he said.
Trudeau promised that the app will be “anonymous” and “respectful of your privacy.” However, you will be uploading sensitive health information to a third party. And big-tech companies have been known in the past to misuse personal data.
Similar COVID-19 tracing apps in Norway, Kuwait and Bahrain have come under heavy criticism after it was found that users were being tracked by GPS and in real time. “Bahrain, Kuwait and Norway have run roughshod over people’s privacy, with highly invasive surveillance tools, which go far beyond what is justified in efforts to tackle COVID-19,” said Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s Security Lab.
However, government officials say the app follows strict privacy protocols by not allowing the app to collect a user’s personal or location data and deleting all the information it gathers after two weeks.
The creators of the original technology admit on their website that while people may be leery of sharing their personal health information, the trade-off is that it will help fight this scary disease. They claim that the app employs the “most privacy-preserving approach currently available.” And they play down the role that big tech played in its development. “The privacy implications of using phones for contact tracing are very complicated. The limited scope of Apple and Google’s joint project is the best effort to date to balance those trade-offs,” read the statement.
OUT OF TOUCH?
OTHERS ARE criticizing the app for its lack of human touch and saying that it could cause more alarm than good.
“There is a danger of being too technological and relying too much on text and emails and alienating or freaking out people because you’re telling them quite alarming news through quite casual communications,” said James Bethell, U.K.’s minister for innovation at the department of health and social care.
And while the federal government would like there to be one app for the entire country, Alberta has already launched a different version, called ABTraceTogether.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford claimed the app was “100 per cent private” and pleaded with people to use the app, saying, “It’s going to protect us. It’s going to protect our families.”