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July 27, 2020 in

The Privacy and Legal Concerns of COVID-19 Tracking Apps

The Privacy and Legal Concerns of COVID-19 Tracking Apps

The current health pandemic is at the forefront of all of our minds, all of the time. You cannot turn on a news station, open a social media platform, or walk past a group of people without hearing someone discussing COVID-19. People are conducting their day to day lives with great caution as the threat of catching the coronavirus is all too real and has hit close to home for most of us. Masks are being worn, social distancing is being practiced, and trips are being postponed to help reduce the spread of the virus.

COVID-19 Tracking Apps

For those who do contract the virus – they are often left wondering how they contracted it and from who. Is there a way to find out?

Tracing who you have come into contact with to pinpoint where you might have contracted the virus can be tough, especially now that businesses are opening back up and people are venturing out. So, what is the solution? As with all things in our modern world one answer appears to be — an app, of course.

COVID-19 Tracking Apps

Big tech giants like Google, Apple, Blackberry, and Shopify are in the process of creating apps that help track positive COVID-19 cases. They are capitalizing on the fact that most people have smartphones to help create infection maps to “test and trace” the coronavirus. The ultimate goal, of course, being to help contain the spread and not to shame those who contract it.

So far, places like the UK and Canada are piloting this technology for some of their more populous and affected cities. This month, Ontario is expected to have its app, called “COVID Alert,” up and running. It is set to use Bluetooth connections to allow users to self-report their positive cases by allowing the tracking of randomly generated user codes in specific geographic areas the user is in. In turn, this will alert anyone who ventured close to the person who tested positive. The app will require users to have a specific code from a doctor to transmit that they are positive in order to not contaminate the data with false information. 1

Other countries have already launched apps as well. Places like Iceland, Israel, Australia, and Sweden have apps up and running to help track, as well as trace, users who are infected with this highly contagious virus.

Can the Government Force a User to Download the App?

In India, the government has mandated users to download their version of the COVID app if they work in public or private offices, travel on their train system, or live in a high-risk area. In one Delhi suburb, there could even be fines or jail time for failure to install and use the app.

The development of these apps raises privacy concerns, as it has access to personal and sensitive health information. Along with the continuous use of Bluetooth data, the user’s location is reported every 15 minutes. In fact, ethical hackers have already been able to infiltrate the data and view it causing even more security concerns. In India, there are no national data privacy laws, allowing the government to be immune from liability if data is compromised.

Other places like China have zero privacy. The app records the user’s identity, location, and online payment history so local police can monitor who breaks quarantine rules. In fact, according to an MIT review, a lot of the apps utilized in countries do not meet MIT’s privacy guidelines, which can put users at risk. 3

Privacy concerns are just some of the negative possible consequences with the use of the apps. Another extremely pressing concern, in every place that it is being considered, is that the app could violate civil liberties. It is feared that the app could be harnessed to build a state surveillance system when the coronavirus threat subsides. 2

Privacy Concerns with the Apps

Perhaps for the reasons discussed above, in Europe, governments have been hesitant to back the app even though those who elect to utilize the app are ensured complete privacy by the developers. People worry the data collected can be abused by the government or the tech giants associated with the apps. Apple and Google hope to answer these concerns by limiting the information collected and anonymizing it so personalized tracking is not available.4 For some users, possibly wearied by tech breaches, that is not enough to assuage their concerns.

Coronavirus / COVID-19 Tracking Apps for Phones by Watts Guerra

As the various apps become available, several questions seem to arise that some of the developers cannot remedy with their apps. Five basic concerns, according to the MIT criteria, are questioned with all the apps that hit the market around the world. Many of the apps wholly fail to meaningfully address them.

  • Mandatory vs. Voluntary: The app should be voluntary and users should not be forced to download the software.
  • Usage of Data: The main point of data collection should be for public health (but, for countries such as China, we know that the data can also be used for law enforcement).
  • Expiration Date: The data collected should not be kept indefinitely, should be automatically deleted after a reasonable amount of time, or even have the ability to allow users to delete their own data.
  • Minimal Data Collection: The apps should only collect the information it needs and nothing more.
  • Transparency: The policies and design of the apps should be clear and public with open-source coding in order to be the least invasive option for users. 3

For a full list of countries that have been graded on these criteria, click here.

Legal Concerns with COVID Tracking Apps

Clearly, utilizing an application that monitors and reports information about a user can bring all sorts of legal questions to mind. In the United States, states such as Utah have been testing this technology.  However, these apps have not yet made a national debut. On top of the privacy concerns users might have, we have laid out other legal questions that might be implicated as well.

  • Is it possible for someone (perhaps an employer or school) to legally require me to download the app?
  • What if my data gets compromised and hackers steal it? Will I be able to take legal action against the app developer, app seller, data storage company, or the company that required me to use it?
  • Can the data my phone transmits be utilized in a court of law against my will?
  • What laws are in place to protect my privacy if I voluntarily use the app?
  • To what degree, if any, will the government have access to the information stored about me?
  • If I download and use the app, is there a possibility that I am using the private information of others against their will?
  • Is it possible that those who download and use COVID tracking apps could be able to identify others who may be infected?
  • How might these apps either be covered by or conflict with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)

 

There are a lot of positive ideas behind utilizing a “track and trace” app to help contain the spread of COVID-19. With a cure and/or vaccine not yet developed, COVID-19 is a formidable threat that has been spreading rapidly. Unfortunately, the more developed countries that have access to smartphone technology are to benefit from the apps, but the privacy concerns make a user wonder if tracing the virus is worth these serious legal ramifications. Hopefully, the developers take into consideration all of the concerns the users, and the legal world, have expressed so the world population has a greater chance of reducing infections without giving up important legal rights.

 

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  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-canada-app/canadas-shopify-blackberry-develop-covid-19-contact-tracing-app-with-local-governments-idUSKBN23P2TB
  2. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-india-contact-tracing-app-privacy-data-security-concerns-aarogya-setu-forced-on-millions/
  3. https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/05/07/1000961/launching-mittr-covid-tracing-tracker/
  4. https://www.denverpost.com/2020/0%C3%A55/10/coronavirus-tracing-apps-privacy/