Managing the COVID-19 virus relies on tracking, tracing and linking. Mobile app are one way this can happen.
Not all apps are the same. Some ‘automated’ apps use GPS to track people’s movements and then matches these movements to other people in similar locations at the same time. Others are based on Bluetooth to judge and map proximity.
NZ’s own app NZ COVID Tracer is manual – a sort of digital diary with QR codes at its base. Users scan ‘official’ QR Codes or manually enter details. This information is then uploaded on request. NZ’s Privacy Act (1993) provides tough controls to stop data being inadvertently or purposely shared without the users permission.
Privacy and Surveillance Issues
Unfortunately not all apps (or the governments behind them) make privacy a priority.
MIT’s Technology Review’s (2020) article on contact tracing apps points out questions that should arise when you set out to ‘track’ to ‘trace’ your citizens.
- is the app voluntary? – some are opt, others are compulsory
- does it have limitations on data use? can it be used by the police for example? are there time limits on its storage? will it be destroyed or kept and if kept where?
- does the app collect data like it says on the packet?or does a whole heap of other info get scooped up as well?
- is information on the app transparent? This is in terms of the previous bullet points as well as its design and code.
Letting go of new control and surveillance measures will be hard for some governments. The terrorism laws after 9/11 is a prime example of laws and measures that were never revoked and often used for purposes not intended.
An article in ‘Science’ by Servick (2020) describes the effectiveness of these apps. Do they actually support the fight against the virus? She argues that several key aspects need to be in place for this to happen.
First, apps must have buy in from the public to ensure that there is enough coverage to get the data that is needed. That said, it seems as if even relatively low numbers of uptake can make some difference.
Also, apps need to detect the newly infected in situations of community based transmission. which means data systems that can effectively capture information about individuals and their contacts and make connections between people to form cluster maps.
Some apps are in development that may be also able to assess risk. Its possible, for example, to notify individuals when they have stayed in proximity with another person for more than 15 mins. Technological issues (the accuracy of GPS) and the degree of uptake make this a challenging goal.
The effectiveness of these apps will have to be tested against traditional methods to see if they are worth the effort.
Personally I am not fond of being ‘traced’ no matter what the circumstance. I keep my location data off on my phone and actively look to see what information is being sourced and where. I don’t use Loyalty Cards for this reason and keep a good eye on what privacy controls are changed on social media.
On a final note, disasters always bring opportunities. For me it is hopefully not the opportunity to track and trace citizens in order to monitor dissent not disease. Its the opportunity for organisations like Google and Apple to collaborate on APIs, and ways that their respective technologies can work together better. Its also an opportunity for mindfulness about who one connects to on a daily basis. Those are the opportunities that seem useful going forward.