Ex­po­sure de­tected: the COVID-19 app

The con­tact trac­ing app that aims to curb the spread of COVID-19 is rais­ing pri­vacy con­cerns

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Peter Mug­geridge

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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.

BIG BROTHER?

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.”

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