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COVID-19 Tracking Apps: How They Work and Privacy Protection

In recent years, issues surrounding tech companies’ privacy policies have come into focus. Most recently, apps that track COVID-19 exposure are being questioned as to whether or not they are safe, invasive, or effective. While rules that are based on scientific recommendation are in many ways what have been proven to help contain the virus, many countries have had great success using a variety of contact tracing methods. So, what does the COVID-19 tracking app look like around the world, and is it safe or effective? The answer depends on where you live and the privacy policies in your region.

Before exploring the controversies surrounding these apps, it is necessary to understand how they work. Most apps in locations where privacy is of greater value have a similar concept. Every five minutes, through Bluetooth, the apps exchange random codes with nearby devices. When someone contracts COVID-19, they can choose to upload the random codes their phone sent. The app then checks daily for codes belonging to a user who has said that they have tested positive. Through these random codes, you will receive a notification. You will only receive a notification if you have been within 2 metres of someone for 15 minutes or longer. While different apps that have been developed around the world may have slight differences, they all work around this similar framework.

In other countries where privacy is of less importance, apps are mandatory to download and track locations, travel history and keep tabs on if people are following proper guidelines. Some of these countries include South Korea, China, Qatar.

How effective can these apps be if not everyone downloads the app? Originally, a study from earlier this year at Oxford University suggested that if the app had 60% user rate in a given area, it could be effective. Since then, though, this number has continued to be disputed. Even if less widely used, these contact tracing apps can still be extremely helpful.

The way that these apps operate and help stop the spread is quite simple. Imagine that one person is in a grocery store, and they later find out that they have contracted COVID-19. As they were shopping, someone was following them as they walked around the grocery store. If one or neither of them had the app, they wouldn’t be alerted that they may have come in contact with COVID-19. On the contrary, if both had the app, the apps would have been sending codes as they were in the grocery store. If the person who got COVID-19 put this information into the app, the person that they were shopping with would be alerted that she may need to get tested. Even if a lower percentage of the population were to download the app, lives could be saved.

These tracking apps have drawn criticism for their potentially privacy-invasive operating systems. In Europe, these concerns are intense, and officials have called for collaborative efforts to keep track of when and how personal data is being exploited. In Norway, their app was temporarily suspended after it gained concerns from its data privacy watchdog.

Where the app is mandatory, it is more effective. In Australia, only one person was identified using the app, and The Guardian said that the app was “barely relevant”. In stark contrast, nearly 30,000 phone users were contacted over the first weekend that the app restarted during a rise in cases in early July in Israel.

The first countries to announce tracing apps were mostly in Asia. In China, the apps were crucial in lifting Beijing out of its lockdown. As cases surge worldwide, and more time has lapsed for safe apps to be developed, the use of tracking apps is becoming more widespread. In the United States, many states have adopted the use of apps. Most apps are not seeing a 60% download rate in the population.

I believe that a balance must be reached in order to protect our privacy but also help to stop the spread of COVID-19. If an app this critical to maintaining public health cannot be effective without collecting some information, perhaps collecting this information is needed. The apps that are optional and do not collect data may be the most accommodating of privacy, and while they are less effective than those that are mandatory, they just may be a perfect balance.

In our rapidly changing, technology driven world, it is imperative to continue to stay informed. Privacy and its role in technology is being challenged each day, and it is essential to find a balance. Now, as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, it is more important than ever to find additional ways to stay safe, and a safe tracking app can most definitely help.

Written by Sophie Block

Designs by Patricia M.


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