Tuesday 11/24/20

Covid-19: contact tracing apps and privacy concerns

The 1918-20 flu pandemic, also known as the influenza or Spanish flu pandemic and caused by the influenza A virus resulting in 17-50 million estimated deaths, was one of the deadliest pandemics ever. COVID-19 has also spread globally and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The difference between the 1920 and 2020 pandemics however is huge in many ways. Today, we are more equipped and advanced in terms of medical treatments, development of medicines and usage of technology. The use of technology in diagnosis, testing and tracking has made a big difference and helped to confine this invisible danger.

The use of different mobile apps and other monitoring devices such as wrist bands, rings, etc. kicked off in full swing during this pandemic.

The fear of coronavirus has compelled people more than ever to adopt these technologies, providing all the features of tracking and data sharing. At the moment, the burden and stress of the virus have reduced a little in many countries and people are starting to think about data breaches and security concerns.

Leakage of crucial information

Many reports about different companies, institutes and applications have surfaced about their privacy standards and possible leakage of crucial information, for example, the security flaws found in the UK's National Health Services (NHS) mobile app.

The security researchers Dr Chris Culnane and Vanessa Teague warned about the users’ privacy risks and have suggested that a decentralised system is more secure in comparison to a centralised system, though still there can be bugs in both.

An article published in Nature has described the centralised and decentralised models for contact tracing and also highlighted privacy concerns.

At the moment, the burden and stress of the virus have reduced a little in many countries and people are starting to think about data breaches and security concerns

Similarly, the European Commission has shown concern about privacy over the storing and processing of location data by various mobile apps. According to an official statement:

“Collecting an individual’s movements in the context of contact tracing apps would violate the principle of data minimisation and would create major security and privacy issues,” the Commission said.

On the other hand, according to the WHO: “When systematically applied, contact tracing will break the chains of transmission of infectious disease and is thus an essential public health tool for controlling infectious disease outbreaks”.

Additionally, the OECD also highlighted the importance of the safe use of data: “Disclosures of personal information can allow the public to better identify potential Covid-19 infections and track the spread over time. However, current digital solutions for monitoring and containment have varying implications for privacy and data protection”.

The Finnish App

The Finnish Health Ministry (STM) and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) have presented details for a contact tracing app in Finland. The expected launch of the mobile app is in August.

Finland’s parliament approved a temporary amendment on the 26th of June 2020 to the Communicable Disease Act to create guidelines for the contact tracing application. A company named Solita is building the application and is expected to release it in August.

The use of the app is optional, but the more people that use it, the more effective the results will be. According to an Oxford University study, the epidemic will be suppressed if more than 56% of the population uses the app.

Tracking apps can help the population to be more aware of the virus spreading but at the price of compromised privacy

But questions still remain about the pros and cons of the mobile app. Tracking apps can help the population to be more aware of the virus spreading but at the price of compromised privacy.

As we all are learning new information every day about Covid-19, the development of medicines and extensive use of technology, it is very hard to evaluate and give the final word about how to strike the right balance. Governments now have huge responsibility to find a balance between the health and privacy of their citizens.

As most of the Governments are outsourcing this application building process from third-party developers’ mostly private companies, it should be clearer where the data is going to save, what will be the standard operating procedures (SOPs) to manage the sensitive data and who will be responsible in case of leakage or misuse of data.

All the data management and handling should be transparent and well informed to the public before everyone rush to download the application.

What are your thoughts on this matter? Would you download the app in August or be hesitant about it?

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