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Jakarta Post

COVID-19 apps: Fear of tyranny by data

  • Fitriani

    -

Jakarta   /   Mon, June 22, 2020   /   08:31 am
COVID-19 apps: Fear of tyranny by data Illustration of COVID-19 contact tracing app (Shutterstock/Redkey USB)

In everyday life, modern people use various software programs and apps, from online shopping to ride-hailing, but the introduction of COVID-19 tracking apps has sparked concerns about privacy.

The reason behind this is the increasing number of governments around the world that endorse and even, in specific circumstances, oblige citizens to install a COVID-19 tracking app. 

At least 20 countries/territories are rolling out electronic tracking measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, including Australia, China, Norway, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The concerns over these apps are twofold. In the short run, there are fears of mass surveillance and data storage security. In the long run, there are worries about misuse of the information collected, especially if the government subcontracts the creation of the app and data storage to a third party without sufficient legislation in place.

Efforts to contain the spread of the virus can of course be done manually by tracking the interaction of people who test positive, asking with whom they have interacted in the past 14 days or more. But the results will greatly depend on the extent of people’s memory. Moreover, getting the phone numbers of people interacting with COVID-19 patients and calling them one by one to suggest self-quarantine would be tedious and time-consuming.

For efficiency, therefore, tracking technology is used to collect data and prompt alerts. Using mobile technology to track COVID-19 is cheaper and scalable, provided most of the population already has access to the internet and smartphones. Good data collection and utilization can help health scientists lower disease transmissions and support officials to create better policies, as well as allocate resources like ventilators and test kits.

Contract tracing apps for COVID-19 commonly use Bluetooth and a global positioning system (GPS), which have been popular among digital natives born post-1990 after the internet was invented. They number 360 million across the world and about 40 million in Indonesia.

The tracking apps usually record the identity of devices and/or phone numbers to detect their movement and interaction with other devices. Bluetooth tracking records phone models and, therefore, this identity needs to be randomized if possible. Understanding that COVID-19 tracking apps record users’ identities, it is important to be mindful of the privacy risks posed. 

Most people do not mind having their data tracked as their information is already in the cloud, but for some, especially certain government officials, military personnel or minority groups, it could be life-threatening. Conversely, COVID-19 tracking apps can be life-saving to contain the virus’ spread. 

There are two actions that governments can take in designing COVID-19 tracking to respect users’ privacy and data. First, identities collected by the app can be anonymized or randomized, and there should be a choice to opt out anytime even after the information is keyed in by users. Second, the data storage location should be carefully considered; whether it is centralized in a server or distributed in users’ phones, whether ministries or agencies can have the right to access the data and whether old tracing data recorded (usually more than 14 days) can be autodeleted.

Indonesia’s COVID-19 tracking app PeduliLindungi was jointly developed by the Communications and Information Ministry and the State-Owned Enterprises Ministry. The app collects usernames, mobile phone numbers, phone models, geolocations and timestamps. It alerts users whenever they enter a “red zone”, or an area with close proximity to positive COVID-19 cases. 

During the Global Forum for Cyber Expertise (GFCE) meeting on COVID-19 tracking technology in mid-May, which I attended, it was obvious that countries were still assessing the effectiveness of their COVID-19 tracking apps as the download and usage numbers were a fraction of the population.

Challenges remain in obtaining the trust and even accessibility for the wider public to use the apps, not only the tech-literate. It is worth noting that with many countries producing COVID-19 apps, the two biggest global companies providing operating systems and app stores, namely Google and Apple, have agreed to create an interoperable platform for government health authorities. 

The two companies planned to jointly build Bluetooth-based contact tracing functionality and integrate it into their platforms to reach the wider population. However, the concern would be whether the tech giants will monetize the acquired health data in the future.

The usage of tracking apps comes with the cost of increasing privacy and security risks of individuals and communities. There is already stigma toward people who have tested positive for COVID-19. If the data collected by location tracking apps is leaked, it may also increase the risk of persecution, especially for minority groups. 

However, applying technology is arguably useful to obtain large-scale data in an efficient and timely manner, which can save lives. It is also worth remembering that having a COVID-19 tracking app is not a panacea; there are other technologies that can offer solutions to COVID-19-related matters.

Tracking apps are produced to collect data that can be indispensable for formulating policies in times of public health emergencies. Without data, policy is often misguided and/or based on impulsive decision-making that may not be effective and less thorough. 

However, it is understandable that people are worried about the possibility that their private data could be leaked and obtained by foreign entities. The challenge lies between health and privacy – which one should be prioritized in specific settings – and whether the government can ensure the public their data is safe and will not be used against them.

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Researcher at Department of International Relations, CSIS Indonesia. The original article was published by CSIS Commentaries.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.