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BOLD OPINION: Privacy Rights Are Important, But Tracking Viruses Is More Important

someone using an app to track people's locations

At present, 185 nations have been affected by the CVID-19 pandemic. Millions are infected, and countries are scrambling to devise a game plan in managing the disease. In the process, a global economic recession appears inevitable. And no one yet knows when or if a vaccine can be developed to allow populations to resume some sense of normalcy. In this uncertain environment, public health officials have defined three key measures that can guide us to safer ground: contact tracing, broad coronavirus testing, and quarantining.

Given the size of the world’s population, achieving these three measures on a significant scale has been challenging. But one area offers hope. The use of smartphones to facilitate contact tracing could be a tremendous game-changer. The mobility and speed with which a coronavirus app could trace contacts could give public health officials a serious advantage. But at what cost? By tapping into people’s smartphone for contact tracing, privacy rights and personal securities could be violated. The obvious question is therefore whether or not our need to save lives and restore public health is worth these risks.

“Automated contact tracing is a big idea, an ambitious idea. But it’s important to be ambitious right now.” – Dr. Louise Ivers, Executive Director of the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General Hospital

How a Coronavirus App for Contact Tracing Works

Across the globe, a number of countries have already developed a coronavirus app that permits contact tracing. For example, Singapore launched a coronavirus app for voluntary download allowing positive viral test information to be shared with permission. Over 1.1 million people have downloaded the app, which is about 20 percent of the country. Norway, Australia, and India are other nations that have introduced similar contact tracing coronavirus apps. Of these, Norway has achieved the greatest support with 30 percent of its population downloading the app.

Someone using an app to track someone
The war on this global pandemic requires a coronavirus app that tracks those exposed.

In each of these cases, different technologies are used to facilitate contact tracing. Some use Bluetooth technologies, which permit low level energy to monitor location. Likewise, Bluetooth offers more accurate data in terms of proximity. Other coronavirus apps rely on GPS tracking software or even Wi-Fi systems for contact tracing. Not only are these less accurate in terms of location. They also tend to use more battery power than Bluetooth systems. Regardless, in each instance, smartphone locations are monitored in relation to other smartphones. Then, if one user is identified as test positive, a history of contacts can be provided through the app. This would then allow quarantining measures to be used to limit the spread of the viral infection.

“They just pilot [the app] out, see how it works and, as the debate is taking place, they scale the project — and once it’s scaled, then it becomes a lot harder to roll back.” – Sidharth Deb, Policy and Parliamentary Counsel for the Internet Freedom Foundation

Privacy and Security Concerns with Coronavirus Apps

Any type of app that tracks data, including location data, has the potential to infringe upon people’s privacies. But in terms of a coronavirus app specifically, several areas of concern exist. Depending on how the contact tracing is performed, there may be concerns about data security. Hackers may access data without permission, or governments may use such data for unwarranted surveillance. Likewise, because a coronavirus app would deal with positive test information, health privacy is a concern as well. These types of issues are a major reason many people refuse to voluntarily download a coronavirus app in the first place.

Understanding this, some developers are trying to better ensure privacy and security through creative design. For example, the current collaborative project between Apple and Google use anonymous identifiers that frequently rotate codes. Data is also stored on the user’s device rather than on a central server. And data is also deleted after a set period of time. These as well as the Bluetooth platform used reduces the chance data will be stolen or manipulated. But the Apple and Google project is the only one to date favored by privacy rights groups. The vast majority of all other coronavirus apps for contact tracing tend to be much less secure.

“There are times that not using the information that we have is morally hard to defend, and I think this is one of them.” – Michelle Mello, Health Law Professor at Stanford University

An Argument for the Greater Good

The right to privacy is an important right that is respected among many nations throughout the world. It is part of our own Bill of Rights, and any consideration that violates our right to privacy needs to be taken seriously. But at the same time, protecting public health, both nationally and globally, is important. Our right to privacy is not supreme over all other rights, especially when human lives are at stake. Thus, whenever we are faced with situations like those of today, we must keep things in logical perspective.

After the attacks of 9/11, Americans traded some privacy rights in an effort to feel more secure and safe. In essence, we are again facing a similar situation. From one point of view, a coronavirus app that permits contact tracing has the potential to save lives. At the same time, it also could allow nations to get back on their feet economically much faster. Both are important in honoring human life and wellbeing. From a moral viewpoint, saving our right to privacy at the expense of a worsening pandemic seems simply unjust.

“When you hear people saying there will never be take-up of the app, they are talking like we are not in the world we are currently in.” – Christopher Fraser, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist at Oxford University

The Pieces of the Puzzle Needed

While several countries have made great strides in having their citizens download a coronavirus app, it isn’t enough. Researchers suggest that 60 percent of a population needs to participate in contact tracing for it to be effective. Likewise, this must be combined with broad testing measures and enforced quarantining. Understanding this, no nation is close to having the right system in place to stop the pandemic in its tracks. However, this doesn’t mean we should push ahead. And our right for privacy shouldn’t stand in the way either. While there’s no denying privacy rights are important, in our current time, global public health takes precedent.

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