Are contact-tracing apps a scourge or savior?

Will contact-tracing apps help contain the pandemic, or will they flop while normalizing mass surveillance?

That’s the substance of a major debate now raging among privacy and public health advocates. As countries rush to roll out contact-tracing tech, which seeks to notify people who may have come into contact with COVID-19, some are encountering complications.

Early problems may hurt hopes. Amnesty International, the civil-rights group, warns that apps distributed by the governments of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Norway are some of the world’s most privacy-invasive. The three apps actively track and upload people’s GPS coordinates to centralized servers, a potential security and privacy nightmare. These systems “go far beyond what is justified,” Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s security lab, said in a statement.

Norway took the hint. Heeding a warning from its own data-protection authority on Friday, the country reluctantly pulled its contact-tracing app this week. Camilla Stoltenberg, director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said her team disagreed with the data-protection authority’s determination, but would “delete all data and pause work” regardless. Defiantly, Stoltenberg added that without the app, Norway “will be less equipped to prevent new outbreaks that may occur locally or nationally.”

The problems don’t end there. A vulnerability in a Qatari contact-tracing app potentially exposed a million people’s personal details in May. Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, France, Iceland, and United Arab Emirates are pursuing a centralized model like Norway’s, which is less ideal for security and privacy. The worst offenders risk turning public opinion against all contact-tracing app efforts.

The apps won’t work if people fail to use them. Researchers estimate that 60% of a country’s population must adopt the technology for it to stop a second wave of pandemic infections. On Tuesday, Germany released its version of a contact-tracing app, but a June 10 survey indicated that only 41% of Germans would be willing to download it. (If the majority of the population adhered to social distancing, hygiene, and mask-wearing guidelines, the apps might be effective with as little as 20% adoption.)

There is hope for privacy preservation. Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy, and Switzerland are some of the countries that have opted for a decentralized approach to data collection, meaning people’s data will be stored on their own phones rather than on government servers. And a system in development by MIT scientists, called “private automatic contact tracing,” sounds promising too.

If a contact-tracing app were to become available in the United States, would you download it? Please send me a note sharing your point of view; we’ll consider featuring it in an upcoming newsletter.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

Email: [email protected]

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