Contact tracing apps aren’t private or ethical

Datanami

Datanami

Apple and Google teamed up to make a contact tracing app to help individuals keep track of potential exposure to COVID-19, or coronavirus, but there are already multiple concerns about the technology.

Contact tracing is not a new concept. It has been more traditionally been that when someone gets sick during a pandemic, they are interviewed about who they have been with the past few days and those people are alerted in-person about the exposure.

Apple and Google’s solution would use Bluetooth to exchange anonymous identifiers with people an individual spends at least 10 minutes with, and if one of those people tests positive for COVID-19 within 14 days, the individual is alerted so they can isolate themselves, according to Business Insiders.

Although it sounds great in concept, there are multiple aspects that people are questioning, and rightfully so.

For one, over half of the population would have to opt-in to contact tracing technology in order for it to stop the spread of COVID-19, according to an Oxford University study.

Christopher Fraser, a senior researcher in the study, explained, “Our models show we can stop the epidemic if approximately 60% of the population use the app, and even with lower numbers of app users, we still estimate a reduction in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.”

There are multiple ethical problems with the technology that have made it riskier to opt-in to the technology, such as privacy concerns.

For example, take Utah’s own contact tracing app, Healthy Together. It tracks the location of users and can track contacts as well if users choose to opt-in for it.

According to Healthy Together’s Utah website, “location and Bluetooth data will automatically be deleted after 30 days,” and the same goes for symptom data that users put in.

Although it is good that the data won’t permanently remain with the app, Bluetooth itself can be problematic.

According to MIT Technology Review, “many things can mess that signal up and make the data incorrect. Things like walls, human bodies, pockets, or even proximity to several phones at once can throw the measurements off,” creating false positives. 

Even without the worry of privacy, there could be legal issues that make it harder for contact tracing apps to become mainstream tools in society.

One of these is HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which, according to the CDC, protects “sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent or knowledge.”

App-developers and related parties have to keep it in mind so that they don’t get fined heavily for each violation of HIPAA.

With all of these issues at hand, until contact tracing apps prove that they can keep data safe and secure regularly, it would not be a great idea to opt-in right now.

Perhaps some ways that contact tracing apps could combat the privacy problem and still do their jobs are to not rely on Bluetooth for tracing who people have been in contact with, track the contacts instead of the location, make multiple opt-in hurdles in case people aren’t sure they want to opt-in, and delete data every two or three weeks depending on if the person has coronavirus or not.