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Coronavirus Trackers: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Privacy Risks?

october 08, 2020 | internet privacy
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Managing Your Privacy

Methods to halt the spread of coronavirus using smartphones have been tossed around since the start of the pandemic to mixed reviews. The concept seemed attractive until experts weighed the potential privacy issues. Health departments decided to forego apps initially, but this relentless virus now demands a second look. Are smartphone users ready to surrender their data for a good cause? Researchers hope so, but privacy rights advocates still urge caution.

Tracking could collect a massive amount of data, and there's currently little regulation to safeguard it or limit its use. Do you care if an app logs data on every person you stand near this week? Who should have access to your medical data? You get the picture. The need remains, so skeptics in the U.S. are taking a second look and hope to address both privacy and virus concerns.
 

Ways tracking might work.

Mapping the spread of this pervasive, resistant pandemic is the plan, and numerous governments have already selected their desired approach. Several apps dispersed into the wild rely on Bluetooth signals to locate others nearby. Your phone and the contact's device store the details; records are viewed only if one of you gets infected.

Australia was one of the first nations to embrace this form of tracking and is often referenced as a model that could be adopted in other countries, including the U.S. In early May, the government rolled out an app that tracks an individual and keeps a record of other nearby users. The system only works between two smartphone users who both have downloaded the app.

Within hours after its debut, over 1 million Australians had signed up, with users now totaling over 2 million. If an app user tests positive, stored interaction details allow officials to warn others they've been exposed and urge them to self-quarantine. However, any individual who contracts coronavirus in Australia must still approve the release of their phone data after diagnosis.

Australia's system works via Bluetooth connections to search for others near you utilizing the app. Location data is not stored, and contact info is retained for just 21 days. Those who download the app agree to receive exposure warnings.

As COVID-19 has circled the globe, other nations have taken steps that some privacy groups fear will linger long after the threat subsides. Israel recently announced a tracking plan which will tap into a once-secret trove of cellphone calls the government collected to track terrorism, which is raising questions about the previously unknown data collection.

Norway experienced a similar backlash after a possibly premature launch of a virus tracking app; the government imposed a temporary ban on it as officials try to cut back on its heavy surveillance elements.

Security researchers have raised an additional concern about this methodology. While Bluetooth connections don't capture all possible data, anyone who can connect to you via a tracker app might be able to intercept all info you send via Bluetooth.

Analog tracking gets a shot.

All this new digital tech offers encouragement to many wary of contracting coronavirus, but it's impossible to know how many individuals will sign up for digital virus alerts. That means that the old-fashioned, analog method of in-person tracking is also rolling out. Human trackers will hit the streets like private investigators if phone calls and other more modern contact attempts fail.

When the U.S. President was hospitalized in early October, lists were needed of individuals who had been close to him recently; a group of major donors Trump addressed the night he tested positive were quickly notified by email. Other lists are being created. Analog testing is successful when information is readily available but retracing the steps of positively identified patients won’t always be easy. Human trackers could even hit U.S. streets like private investigators to locate those who can’t be reached by email or phone. They'll need a lot of shoe leather to retrace the movements of some who’ve contracted the virus.

The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security has already announced the hiring of thousands of individual coronavirus detectives. Massachusetts plans to hire around 20,000 workers. Other state health departments are likely to follow suit. Another type of analog mapping is one for which you sign up. Some restaurants offer an analog option – forms in store you can sign if you want a call should an employee test positive for coronavirus. With analog tracking, there's no app to download. Contacts would result from info obtained directly from the sick individual, and accuracy will not be 100%. It's challenging to list all the individuals you've been close to over 14 days. 
 

Do the benefits outweigh the privacy risks?

Should you volunteer your data if you acquire the virus? Many apps promise to depersonalize your data so that you can’t be identified by anyone contacted using your phone records. Does that reassure you? It probably should not until you check and double-check the methods employed to anonymize info. Of course, many good reasons exist to embrace the move toward tracking. We all have a stake in containing COVID-19. Just be aware there are privacy risks you're accepting if you do.

It's vital to ask data collectors how long they plan to store the information gleaned from apps. Retaining data for future use once the pandemic ends should not be permitted. If you ever have questions about how to keep your personal and medical information safe, IDShield gives you access to private consultants to alleviate your concerns. Learn more about how to protect your privacy today!

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