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Are coronavirus tracing apps worth the risks?

May 27, 2020 · 5 min read

Are coronavirus tracing apps worth the risks?

After America was attacked on 9/11, the US government passed invasive surveillance laws that are still stripping away Americans’ privacy almost two decades later. Could the same abuse occur with the contact tracking apps being developed to fight the coronavirus pandemic around the world?

How does track and trace work?

Tracing apps track and monitor coronavirus contacts. In the event of a confirmed COVID-19 case, public health institutions can use location data or keys exchanged over Bluetooth to help determine where and when someone got sick and who they might have infected before they started exhibiting symptoms. Anyone who might have come into contact with the infected individual can then also be warned, especially if they also have a tracing app installed.

Here’s an example of how it might work:

  1. Joe goes grocery shopping at his local supermarket. He walks past Meredith, who is carrying the novel coronavirus but not yet exhibiting symptoms. She’s also carrying her smartphone, which has a tracing app that is logging her location at all times. She later gets tested and becomes a known COVID-19 patient.
  2. Joe hasn’t been feeling well so he gets tested. The test comes back positive – he has COVID-19. Fortunately, he’s been using a tracing app, which health officials promptly tap into to analyze Joe’s case.
  3. Where did Joe get COVID-19? They know that Joe and Meredith were at the same location at the same time, so it’s likely that he got it there.
  4. Patrick gets a notification on his phone. He was visiting the same supermarket three days later when Joe had returned for more groceries, which the government knows because he was also using a tracing app. There’s a chance he may have contracted the virus, so he gets tested as well. Even if he’s not yet exhibiting symptoms, this would allow him to find out if he has the potential to spread the disease before falling ill himself.

Does contact tracing really help?

There’s little doubt that contact tracing apps can have a positive impact on a country’s coronavirus response. However, it’s not clear how significant that impact is and whether it’s worth the negative consequences (we’ll get to those in a moment).

On their own, coronavirus tracking apps aren’t a significant preventative measure. Social distancing, protective equipment, and quarantines are far more effective at protecting individuals from the coronavirus. The insights these apps provide can help on a broader level by helping officials understand how and where the virus is spreading and by helping people get tested before they exhibit symptoms. All of this can slow its spread, but to what degree?

Coronavirus tracking app drawbacks and risks

  • Questionable efficacy: A lot of things need to be true to get useful information out of a tracking app program. These include:
    • Depending on who you ask, 60-80% of your entire population needs to use them for them to be relevant. That can be difficult to achieve when not everyone has smartphones (in a prosperous country like the United States, 81% of people have smartphones, meaning the app would need to achieve as much as 100% penetration). At-risk communities, like the elderly or disadvantaged, can be especially difficult obstacles for optimal app penetration.
    • The user’s phone needs to be on, as do those of the app users around them. Depending on the app, they’ll need to have location tracking and/or Bluetooth enabled during their contact as well;
    • You need to identify app users’ infections. Many countries have had trouble ensuring adequate testing, and in many cases, testing only happens if the user self-reports their symptoms. There can be many reasons why someone can’t or won’t report their symptoms (asymptomatic infections, pressure at work).
  • Many countries may not need them: Many epidemiologists agree – contact tracking – via apps or public health professionals – is most effective before the epidemic has become widespread. Some epidemiologists aren’t even sure if it’s effective at all. When enough people are sick, tracking contacts can become more difficult and less effective.
  • Potential for abuse: Apps can be bug-ridden on the best of days. Take massive surveillance on a national scale, give it a tight deadline, and you’ve got a recipe for failure. Here are a few things that might happen:
    • Governments are notoriously poor at data security when it’s not a matter of national security (and even then…). It’s hard to trust a hastily built national location tracking database to keep your data secure. Furthermore, the PATRIOT Act is the perfect example of how “temporary” surveillance measures can become a two-decade fixture of national policy.
    • Hackers know that these apps might be rushed, so they’ll be happy to break in and wreak havoc. Trolls might alter data to make it seem like there are more or less cases than there really are. Criminals might steal personal data or leverage location data to turn a profit on the black market. State-sponsored hackers, like trolls, could use access to sow chaos and panic and perform cyber warfare.
    • Corporations can insert themselves as gatekeepers for these apps (indeed, both Google and Apple are trying to do so). Already-invasive corporations may be looking for more comprehensive ways to track even more people. We can only hope they’ll stick to their word and not profit off of these mountains of data, but the temptation may be too big to pass up.
  • A false sense of security: These apps can be inaccurate. Perhaps the Bluetooth connection won’t succeed and you won’t know that you were in contact with an infected individual. Maybe it will put you at the same location as an infected individual while you were actually on the other side of a wall. These apps cannot take the place of intelligent human contact tracing work, only supplement it. However, app users may be lulled into a false sense of security by relying on the app’s feedback too heavily.

There are other potential issues as well. Many critics have pointed out that these apps may be made mandatory by schools or employers. They could then further be used to discriminate against people who the apps say have been in contact with COVID-19 carriers – whether or not the apps identified those contacts correctly.

Should you use coronavirus tracing apps?

Only you can answer that question for yourself. In short, it depends on your location, your government, and the status of the coronavirus pandemic where you live. Here are some things to consider:

  • Will the data collected from you help keep the public safe?
  • Do you trust your data’s security in your government’s hands?
  • Is it likely that these surveillance powers may be abused or extended indefinitely by your government?
  • Is it likely that other organizations or individuals in your society might abuse the app?

Technology’s potential to help us beat the coronavirus pandemic and save lives has not yet been fully realized. However, it’s important that we protect our rights as well.

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Daniel Markuson
Daniel Markuson successVerified author

Daniel is a digital privacy enthusiast and an internet security expert. As the blog editor at NordVPN, Daniel is generous with spreading news, stories, and tips through the power of a well-written word.

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