Covid-19 Tracing Apps

Jan 11, 2021
4 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has forced governments worldwide to implement movement and civil liberties restrictions to control the virus's spread. This has resulted in the development and rolling out of new technologies-contact tracing apps-to streamline the safe lifting of these restrictions and aid in the automation of the labor-intensive processes that are very critical in containing the pandemic.

But what exactly are these apps?

Covid-19 contact tracing apps are mobile software applications primarily used for digital contact tracing during the coronavirus pandemic by surveillance and response teams. Generally, they usually identify the individuals who might have come in contact with an infected person.

Many apps have currently been proposed and developed, with some regions receiving official government support. Also, several frameworks for designing contact tracing apps have been developed. Still, there have been concerns about these apps' privacy, specifically on the systems that primarily deal with tracking the users' geographical location.

These digital Covid-19 tracing applications are designed to track the user's location or proximity between individuals who have installed the app and active on their mobile phones.

The Technology Behind Contact Tracing Apps

Rapid contact tracing and notification of potentially infected individuals are among the most critical measures established in the fight against coronavirus disease. Several states and companies have adopted the technology of developing and using digital tools in tracing contacts. So, there are different applications for tracing proximity that employs various technologies such as geolocation and Bluetooth.

This technology is beneficial over the traditional contact tracing strategies in that it's quick, can reach masses, and specificity.

A less intrusive alternative that involves using Bluetooth signals has been developed to log the users' proximity to other mobile phones. Apple and Google recently announced a joint integration of functionality to support the development of such Bluetooth based applications directly into their iOS and Android operating systems. This will assign anonymous and unique identification codes for the contacts close to an individual's mobile device. If a person tests positive for coronavirus, the application downloads the history of these codes for public health authorities to break the chain of transmission by notifying the close contacts.

Apart from containing and mitigating Covid-19, digital strategies complement and augment traditional approaches to global health programs.

Ethical Concerns

The development of the Covid-19 tracing applications has caused concerns around the users' rights, privacy, and governmental authority. International bodies such as the United Nations, ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), and European Convention on Human Rights have established the principles to be considered when checking the ethical principles of these covid-19 contact tracing applications. They include proportionality, time boundedness, necessity, and scientific validity.

It's also critical to be open about the emerging technologies, models, and data uses even if it involves discussing the works in progress, preliminary ideas, or uncertainty. The ethical insights surrounding Covid-19 contact tracing are dominated by the desire to incorporate privacy and security because they are vital to maintaining trust and usage.

Rolling out new applications without considering their social and ethical implications can be unsafe, useless, and costly. For instance, the Bluetooth signals that usually show the proximity of two people's mobile devices aren't an absolute indicator of infection risk. The two individuals might be in the same area but physically separated by a barrier such as a wall. Unjustified panic could arise from reports of high levels of false positives from the app. In contrast, the minimal protection against the false negatives could cause a false sense of safety in other individuals hence increasing the risk of getting infected.

The main issue about Covid-19 tracing apps surrounds their privacy! Do they breach users' privacy?

Google and Apple teamed up to build a software called Exposure Notifications that made many individuals hope that digital contact tracing will drastically take off. The system usually has numerous privacy experts because it features periodically erased data, uses Bluetooth, and saves records in individuals' phones instead of a central database. Decentralized data is known to be safer, but the Google-Apple solution still has some risks from a privacy perspective. The apps' information is voluntarily shared with third parties posing a serious security concern.

For instance, Utah developed the app-Health Together-which used Bluetooth and GPS data to augment individual contact tracing, but the GPS location tracking feature was eventually shut down from mistrust and low uptake. The app still tracks proximity but ended up a haphazard app that can't identify the pandemic hotspots but still tracks some data.

North Dakota's contact tracing app also uses location data but was found to be sharing data with Google advertising system and Foursquare. Although the company that designed the app updated its privacy policies, North Dakota and Utah's applications share location data with the state public health department, which is deemed invasive and makes the apps vulnerable to misuse by law enforcement or exploitation by hackers.

Precautionary measures need to be responsibly exercised despite the promise of digital inventions for global health. All the governing authorities must make sure that the policy framework involves strong privacy protection for the users. On the other hand, national or international laws should ensure that the collected data in public health interests aren't used for surveillance or retaliatory purposes.

The world is working around the clock and across various fonts to end the pandemic. The mobile network operators play a critical role in providing secure and robust connectivity for people, government response, and business continuity.

Mass data, AI, and digital technology have arrived in full force at the global health sector to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. While the national governments continue to support the technological move, these digital apps serve as alert systems for enabling quick contact tracing, notifications, and mass reach to the populations.

Covid-19 contact tracing apps are great tools for minimizing the infection rates resulting in less impact on the economy than the lockdown approaches. The traditional contact tracing methods are usually labor-intensive and ambiguous to scale up, but many digital Covid-19 tracing tools are being invented and used.