May 5, 2020

The mis-usecase of contact tracing apps

The launch of the Australian contact tracing app, COVIDSafe, is creating concerns about the security of personal information collected.

# Insights

Contact tracing apps intend to stop COVID-19’s spread by “tracing” connections between people through Bluetooth and notifying others who might have been in the vicinity with a confirmed case. Australia has launched its contact tracing app; COVIDSafe, this Sunday. COVIDSafe helps inform people who might have made contact with a confirmed case. Since the app is launched, there is a bit of noise around it.

How are the Governments addressing privacy concerns?

According to a report by The Guardian, 57% of people were “concerned about the security of personal information collected” through contact tracing apps. However, these apps appear to adequately address widely discussed privacy concerns. It doesn’t seem to collect anything other than what is required, and good security practices have been followed. For example, in most of the countries, the apps do not have access to sensitive information, such as contact lists, GPS location, or SMS content. In most cases, the apps do not register a person’s home address, and they do not share or send any information with anyone, until authorised by the user, if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and then only to government health officials involved in contact tracing.

There is room for further improvements considering the newness and limited time available to develop the apps. Possible expansion to the app could be using a completely distributed storage rather than a centralised cloud. Nevertheless, given the minimum amount of data collected by the app, it is not something critical at this stage. Also, inviting the private sector to help develop solutions could have encouraged innovation and provided economic opportunities. For instance, digital identity service providers might help in implementing the Zero Knowledge Proof.

Nonetheless, these considerations can be taken into account at a later stage. Currently, the government focus is on getting the maximum number of people to download and use the apps. The higher the number of people downloading the app, the safer it will be for everyone, consequently limiting the self-isolation, travel restrictions and economic uncertainty which is currently triggering thorns in mental illness, anxiety and socio-economic factors affecting many people’s wellbeing

 In conclusion, there are not much privacy concerns from the apps, but hoax alerts are already circulating online. Fraudsters are sending fake government messages to the people who have downloaded the app. Some of the texts claim to know when a person had travelled more than 20km from their home address. The text instructs the receivers to ‘register their reason for travel’. End users need to be more vigilant when giving consent. However, that does not mean they should be buying privacy at any cost. For those who are against COVIDSafe, they should know that Google, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or any app on their phone, already have their information. It’s just that they don’t know about it or they don’t have any idea of what is happening. People are unaware of the digitally transformed world out there. Once your IP is taken, you can be tracked anytime.

So it’s a bit unrealistic to assume that the government is attempting to invade your privacy. After all, it’s the same government who issued you what makes you, YOU, i.e. your identity documents. It is very easy to join the barricades contesting the app, But the entire world is in a legitimate crisis. It is essential to make wise choices at this time and help stop the spread of Covid -19. 

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