Using Apps for Contact Tracing: Can We Protect Privacy?

Governments in Canada have yet to officially use phone data to track and trace people who may be infected with COVID-19. However, there has been discussion around using a system in Canada similar to Singapore.

In Singapore, the app being used to track and trace people who may have contracted COVID-19 is “TraceTogether”. TraceTogether uses bluetooth technology to track nearby phones. People can then opt-in to have their information provided to the Ministry of Health if they test positive for COVID-19. Once the Ministry has the information, it alerts people who came across the infected person.

In Canada, a new app may not be necessary, but may be desired to ensure privacy by design. The apps on our phones have already been tracking us, analyzing us, and marketing to us – with varying degrees of meaningful consent. For example, Google, Facebook, and Apple are tracking you. Even seemingly innocent apps like weather apps are tracking you.

In the 2019 article “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret“, the New York Times highlights the stealthy ways we are being tracked.

It’s a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimate $21 billion dollars this year…

Businesses say their interest is in the patterns, not the identities, that the data reveals about consumers. They note that the information apps collect is tied not to someone’s name or phone number but to a unique ID. But those with access to the raw data — including employees or clients — could still identify a person without consent. They could follow someone they knew, by pinpointing a phone that regularly spent time at that person’s home address. Or, working in reverse, they could attach a name to an anonymous dot, by seeing where the device spent nights and using public records to figure out who lived there…

Google and Facebook, which dominate the mobile ad market, also lead in location-based advertising. Both companies collect the data from their own apps. They say they don’t sell it but keep it for themselves to personalize their services, sell targeted ads across the internet and track whether the ads lead to sales at brick-and-mortar stores…

With respect to Coronavirus, Google has already released a report using data about our whereabouts, titled Community Mobility Report. The Report highlights the mobility trends across Canada. Retail and recreation is down, while residential time has increased. Similarly, Facebook has been gathering data on our location and sharing it with researchers at Harvard.

The New York Times recently reported that “Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus is a Luxury“. Jennifer Valentino-Devries, Denise Lu, and Gabriel Dance write that “The wealthiest people, those in the top 10 percent of income have limited their movement more than those in the bottom 10 percent of the same metro areas, according to a Times analysis of cellphone location data.” Lower-income neighbourhoods are being hit the hardest, while wealthier people are better able to stay home. The authors quote Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Covid-19 is exposing a lot of the structural disadvantages that low-income people face,” including a lack of job security and uneven access to health care, said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the essential work force. “The well-off are employed in industries where they are at a desk, and so there are some advantages built into these high-income neighborhoods during this pandemic”…

Researching how COVID-19 spreads is important. Being able to contact trace people who may have COVID-19 is important. However, we need to make sure that privacy is not sacrificed in the process.

In Canada our government should aim to protect personal data while contact tracing and trying to analyze data about movement. In the article, “Why data protection law is uniquely equipped to let us fight a pandemic with personal data,” it is written that “the goal of data protection is to ensure that information relating to individuals is collected and used in such a way that all their other fundamental rights are protected. This includes freedom of speech, the right to private life/privacy, the right to life, the right to security, the right to non-discrimination…”

EU privacy experts have pushed for a decentralized approach to COVID-19 contact tracing. More information can be found in the article by Tech Crunch.

Similarly, a peer-to-peer app-based system for contact tracing was promoted in article in the Washington Post “We need tech and government help with contact tracing. That doesn’t have to mean Big Brother.”

Containing the virus requires that certain rights be curtailed, but we should not sacrifice our privacy in an unreasonable or unnecessary manner.

(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)


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