Contact Tracing: A Government Responsibility: On the Importance of Information Privacy Amidst Tracing Efforts
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the United States, health officials are suggesting many methods of suppressing its spread.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the United States, health officials are suggesting many methods of suppressing its spread. One of those methods, contact tracing, has come to the attention of Apple and Google, two of the largest technology companies in the world. The two recently announced a joint effort to develop a contact tracing app that will allow health officials to locate interactions between people using Bluetooth signals. The app will use phones to broadcast and receive Bluetooth signals from other phones and then record how long people have been in contact using those signals. If a user tests positive for the coronavirus, he or she can report his or her results within the app, and their recorded interactions can be used to determine whom that user has come into contact with. This way, the spread of the virus can be traced, and targeted self-quarantine measures can be implemented to those that came into contact with an infected person. The idea behind the system is promising, but the fact that private American corporations rather than the federal government are leading the effort hinders its effectiveness and provokes questions about privacy issues.
As with any technology, privacy is a main concern for Apple and Google in developing their Bluetooth contact tracing app. In a tentative plan for the app available on its website, Apple has ensured that the app will not track the location of users but merely use "Bluetooth beaconing to detect proximity" of people. Apple also stated numerous times that people will get to choose whether or not to participate in the contact tracing app, and even if they do, their information will not be shared without their consent. This system begs the question: If the only contacts the app can trace are people who download the app and consent to sharing their diagnosis status, what is the point? Contact tracing is most effective when everyone participates and the interactions of infected people can be pinpointed. Even though they are two of the largest companies in the world, the most Apple and Google can do is to suggest that people download the app by advertising on the App Store or the Google search engine and hope that people listen.
Furthermore, despite the promises that these companies make, privacy may remain a big issue. As with any free app, the risks of the developers collecting and potentially sharing user data are very prominent, even with the privacy-preserving mechanisms mentioned on Apple's website. In the past, third party users have gained unauthorized access to iPhone cameras by tampering with app permissions, and it is unreliable to say that such situations will not happen again.
The answer to a more effective contact tracing platform ultimately lies in giving control of the platform to the government. The public cannot fully place its trust in private companies, as often, these corporations have their own interests at heart rather than the people's.While some may argue that there may also be privacy issues with handing over control to the national administration as well, the federal government would be a more reliable source because its top priority is to ensure that citizens' concerns are addressed. Furthermore, whether on television or other forms of media, the government retains many more outlets to promote the app than these companies do. More people will actually download the app and consent to its terms and conditions if they hear about it in a national advertisement, thereby making the system much more successful. As the number of cases and deaths in the United States have been on a continuous rise, and only now beginning to slow down recently, the government should, in fact, develop such a system because saving the maximum number of lives should outweigh our concern of privacy-even though the likelihood of the administration's choosing to manipulate our personal information is extremely low in a time when peoples' lives are in danger.
Australia's response to the rapid spread of the virus is a case in point. With its plans to reopen the country, the Australian government has recently launched a similar contact tracing app called COVIDSafe. The same privacy mechanisms proposed for the Apple and Google app exist in COVIDSafe, so people will not have to resort to using less reliable programs created by private corporations.
Another successful government-run contact tracing system was developed in South Korea. Instead of using an app that users have to download to be effective, the Korean government sends out daily text messages to the entire nation containing information on confirmed cases and their recent whereabouts. The reports leave the patients' identities anonymous for privacy, but people who may have been in contact with patients can see those text messages and get tested for the virus themselves. The locations the patients visited are then shut down temporarily and sterilized, eliminating further spread of the virus.
The generous efforts of Apple and Google to help combat the coronavirus are admirable, but governments around the world should not leave their citizens' health at the mercy of corporations. Although at times, the government also may not seem the most trustworthy source, sometimes raising some privacy concerns of its own, it still has an obligation to serve the people's interests; private companies, however, do not. In addition, direct administrative control over a contact tracing app would prevent the complications of having to use third party companies to obtain time-sensitive information, a crucial difference that could potentially save lives. Therefore, it is time for health and government officials to take charge of contact tracing initiatives to increase their success.