As countries roll out their plans to ease physical distancing measures, a safe return to ‘normal’ life where individuals previously occupied crowded spaces appears to need a bit of help from technology. Several states in America have unveiled plans for digital tracking models that rely on self-reporting in order to limit the spread of future outbreaks. The use of contact-tracing tools however has received pushback from privacy experts as well as the public at large for being too invasive or leading to the creation of a ‘surveillance state’. In a press briefing, when asked about data gathering and privacy issues surrounding contact-tracing apps, Prime Minister Trudeau said that finding a ‘balance’ between efficient data collection and Canadians’ right to privacy is “extremely important”.
Although any form of digital model that relies on data collection is going to have privacy drawbacks, it is important for app developers to understand the extent to which users are willing to compromise their privacy for the sake of safety and security. Contact-tracing apps have been proven to be effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in numerous East Asian countries. The main challenge to the implementation of contact-tracing models is the fact that they rely on voluntary participation of individuals who have tested positive for the virus. Examples of successful implementation of smartphone apps for the purposes of containment of COVID-19 outbreaks in Singapore and South Korea show that for these models to be effective, at least 60% of the population must be willing to participate. With ever-increasing skepticism of the public towards any form of mass data collection following recent scandals such as Cambridge Analytica’s unauthorized gathering and use of Facebook users’ data, convincing the public to opt in to a database where their daily contacts may be stored by private or public entities is undoubtedly going to be difficult.
To help address existing concerns regarding the anonymity of participants, a joint initiative by Apple and Google is attempting to strike a balance between efficacy and privacy-preservation in a newly proposed contact-tracing app. To gather data, the app is mainly going to use the Bluetooth feature on participants’ smartphones. When two participants come in contact with each other, the Bluetooth signals from their phones will perform a “digital handshake”. The app will then keep an individualized record of the participants’ encounters under an anonymous ID and in a case where a user voluntarily discloses that they have tested positive for the virus, the app will inform all of the individuals whom the user had encountered without revealing any form of personal identity. By using Bluetooth and not revealing the identity of participants, this joint innovation is attempting to move away from the invasive approach of GPS-tracking tools implemented by states such as North Dakota and provides more privacy for its users. Additionally, the Apple-Google digital tool decentralizes information gathering by passing stored data from one personal device to another as opposed to sending data to local or federal authorities.
Although widespread testing and public cooperation are going to be crucial in preventing future outbreaks, skepticism towards any form of data collection from a privacy standpoint is reasonable. The efficacy of a contact-tracing model is ultimately going to depend on the public’s trust in the program and the joint proposal by Google and Apple is a good attempt at addressing privacy concerns regarding identity disclosure and data collection by the government.
Written by Bonnie Hassanzadeh, IPilogue editor and Clinic Fellow at Osgoode Innovation Clinic.