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Are coronavirus contact tracing apps putting your privacy at risk?


2020 began full of hope and optimism as tech analysts and futurists gazed into their virtual crystal balls with predictions for the decade ahead. Emerging technologies such as 5G, IoT, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and blockchain would pave the way for a new digital world where everything is connected.

However, Gartner predicted that a more proactive approach to privacy and data protection would become our primary focus. Authorities around the world were also beginning to focus on tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon that were beginning to have too much influence on our lives, culture, and the global economy. 

Even Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates warned that Governments would need to regulate big tech companies while wearing a variety of pastel sweaters. The global pandemic changed everything, and in under six short months, our world looks unrecognizable, and the future now looks uncertain. Ironically, governments now appear to have a different view of the privacy of its citizens.

The rise of coronavirus contact tracing apps

Tracing the virus's path will play a critical role in getting back to the way things used to be. Traditional methods would involve in-person interviews with patients. But it's far too time-consuming, and there aren't enough available resources to make it an option. Turning to technology for a solution is naturally the next step for governments.

Mobile technology has thrown smartphone contact tracing apps into the spotlight by providing an automated solution. It is thought that the ability to trace people who are thought to have Covid-19 and those they may have unwittingly infected could win the fight against the pandemic. The digital solution is attractive for obvious reasons.

However, for these apps to be successful, around 60% of the population will need to download them. Even if they do, there are a few inconvenient technical limitations and fears from citizens that some governments might be tempted to leverage the tech tracking capabilities to expand surveillance.

Concerns that these battery draining apps could be used as data collection tools could also slow down adoption. Some might be guilty of over-reporting symptoms that result in the creation of false positives. Others might be tempted to not report anything at all, in fear that the data might be used to discriminate against them. Addressing all of these concerns to increase adoption provides authorities with two options.

Centralized vs. decentralized apps

The decentralized app is the preferred option for data protection advocates who have one eye on how this approach will impact citizens in a post-pandemic world. Decentralized servers remove the trail back to participants and the concern of a government or entity harvesting vast amounts of data about them.

A centralized system promises to anonymize the data, but it does require a significant amount of trust that those managing the server won't be tempted to misuse the information. The bigger question is, what happens to the data that reveals the movements of you and your friends after COVID-19?

Governments such as the UK have rejected Apple and Google's "decentralized" approach in favour of a "centralized model." But in doing so, it lacked the safeguards put in place by the tech giants that ensured data was protected. News that the app had failed basic cybersecurity tests before its release set off a few alarm bells. 

Further news that data cannot be deleted as it might be kept for research purposes after the crisis prompted many users to voice their concerns across social media.

By contrast, many European countries, such as Austria, Estonia, and Switzerland, have embraced the decentralized approach. Although initially tempted by centralized models, Germany and Italy have also chosen the option that protects people's privacy while arguably not giving the authorities the same level of information they need. The biggest problem is that the privacy implications of these tracking apps will depend entirely on the country you reside in.

Many of us are more than aware that the most used apps on our smartphones already track our movement. But as intrusive as Facebook can be, it doesn't tell you to self-isolate every time somebody walks past your window or in the opposite supermarket aisle. In an age of instant gratification, we need to accept that there is no such thing as a quick fix and that the technology that promises a quick win is also somewhat flawed.

How many people will hand over their freedom to clinically informed algorithms on a centralized database? The danger is that these apps will be deleted quicker than an exhibition or conference app if they deliver frustration rather than value or peace of mind. Ironically, it's now the tech companies offering privacy-focused decentralized solutions while governments are being accused of being far too invasive.

2020 will be remembered as the year that the world battled the coronavirus pandemic. If we dare to look beyond COVID-19, there is an argument that the real battle is for privacy. Long after you have deleted the Coronavirus tracking apps, ask yourself what happens to that data? The answer to that question might suggest that the privacy fight will continue for many years to come.

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