When it comes to technology innovation, the saying that if you are not solving a real problem you are creating one, could not be truer with regard to the use of mobile apps and data to tackle coronavirus.
Around the world there has been a rush to use digital technologies, particularly contact-tracing apps on mobile phones as part of an integrated coronavirus control strategy that identifies infected people and their recent person-to-person contacts.
In Singapore, for example, the TraceTogether phone app, developed by Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) and the health ministry, uses Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other participating users in close proximity of two meters. The data is stored locally on each phone with the app which can be requested by the health ministry if and when needed. This is designed to allow authorities to identify those who have been exposed to people infected with coronavirus.
Other governments are using similar technology to monitor quarantines. In Hong Kong, people arriving from abroad are made to put on a plain-looking white wristband and download an app called StayHomeSafe before exiting the airport. The app has to be registered once the user is at home, which starts a 14-day countdown. The user is required to walk to all four corners of his apartment so the app can capture the location and confines of the home.
Last week Israel approved the use of cellphone tracking technology to monitor suspected coronavirus patients – an option normally used only for counterterrorism. And Thailand is reportedly giving all new arrivals at its airports a free SIM card and making them download an app that tracks their location for 14 days.
The thinking behind these apps is laudable. By tracking people’s movements, where and when they interact with others, a picture can be built about how the virus might spread, who should be targeted for isolation or testing. This could be very helpful in containing the virus.
But there is an obvious caveat here which needs to be highlighted before we rush into embracing a high-tech solution which may have important unintended consequences. And the caveat is, which problem is being solved with this approach?
According to Professor Christophe Fraser from Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, Nuffield Department of Medicine, and one of those pushing for a new mobile tracing app in the UK and Europe, coronavirus ‘is unlike previous epidemics and requires multiple inter-dependent containment strategies…. almost half of coronavirus transmissions occur in the very early phase of infection, before symptoms appear, so we need a fast and effective mobile app for alerting people who have been exposed.’
But this only begs the question of how do we know who has the virus, given the current limits of testing across the world?
Without identifying carriers, these apps become nothing more than tracking devices on people’s movements and social contacts. Also, data taken from cellular towers lacks precision and could force many people into quarantine who did not come close enough to people carrying the virus for them to be infected.
While it seems that many of the apps already deployed are voluntary – people opt into their use and are willing to share the data with the authorities – what happens when they become obligatory by law?
And what happens when countries using these go into lockdown? It is no exaggeration to state that anyone with these apps on their phones will now be carrying a spy in their pockets and homes, that can be used to trace and track their movements.
In Hong Kong, 60,000 wrist bands have been deployed already. This may sound like a reasonable deployment aimed to maintain quarantine. But it comes with a larger stick than carrot: anyone who contravenes the quarantine or knowingly gives false information to the Department of Health is liable to face a HK$5,000 ($644) fine and six months in prison. And if anyone deletes the app during the quarantine period the police will be ‘alerted to take follow-up action’.
You can be sure it will not be some sweet health official who will be knocking on your door to implore you to please redownload the app from the Internet and start again.
What is clear, is that a new and important front is opening up in the long-running global debate between privacy and security. Over the years, some governments have relied on controversial practices such as using facial recognition and phone data collection to protect citizens, potentially at the expense of their personal privacy.
The danger now is that the panic to solve the Covid-19 epidemic could decisively shift the balance in favor of more intrusion and curtailment of civil liberties.
In this instance, data protection will become more, not less important. Inadvertent disclosure of the identity of an infected individual as a result of a detailed location tracking program could lead to social shaming, violence or worse.
The pandemic may provide more reasons to put privacy on the back burner. But strong rules and safeguards regulating how data can be used in the current crisis will be critical.
Because governments are in a panic, the biggest unintended consequence could be the trampling of civil liberties without restraint, totally disproportionate to the threat and the problem we are facing. This is not a military war. It is a civilian health crisis. We should jealously guard our democratic rights as determinedly as we should be looking for vaccines and other technological innovations that can solve the problem we face.