By Sia Mohajer
Many academics, business leaders, and governments are claiming that technology is a critical part of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. By utilizing the surveillance capabilities of modern data acquisition systems, it is believed, citizens can be provided with tools that will allow them to see if they have come into contact with someone infected with the virus.
There are two proposed models for contact-tracing apps of this type. One model proposes that location data on citizens be collected and processed centrally by governments. This type of data collection has—understandably—been widely criticized by consumer and privacy rights groups, because of the unprecedented level of surveillance it would represent. Given that tech companies are already deploying this power in service to their governments—with YouTube blocking content that contradicts the WHO, for instance—these fears seem well justified.
Another proposed model is to collect and store location and contact data on citizens’ own devices. This distributed form of data collection has received widespread academic support, because it is claimed that it provides a way for contact-tracing to be performed without giving tech companies and governments access to real-time data on the movements and habits of their citizens.
This distributed data collection model, however, raises some fairly fundamental privacy concerns. Even if a legal framework is in place to protect citizens’ data—which currently isn’t—the level of awareness of digital privacy among the general public still makes these apps extremely dangerous.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the way in which contact tracing apps are designed to work, and why they should be a cause for concern.
Centralization vs. Distribution
Let’s first make the obvious point that some of the contact tracing apps that have been rolled out by governments outside the US and Europe are deeply problematic. In Israel, the government recently passed a law that allowed their security services to access location data on all citizens, and store this centrally. South Korea and China have also followed this model.
The dangers involved in allowing governments to collect this kind of data are clear, and have been pointed out by many privacy advocacy groups in the US and Europe. Nevertheless, governments in these countries are proposing that some form of contact-tracing app be implemented, not least because these governments have a very poor record of conducting contact-tracing on their own.