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Surge Of Smartphone Apps Promise Coronavirus Tracking, But Raise Privacy Concerns

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Topline: A pan-European team of researchers announced Wednesday their plan to release a smartphone app that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, the latest example of tech-driven coronavirus solutions that have also raised concerns about user privacy.

  • A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app in the next week that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified.
  • Contact tracing, or determining people who may have been exposed to someone with a virus, is an established aspect of pandemic control and was used effectively to tackle coronavirus in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea in the form of smartphone tracking.
  • University of Oxford researchers and the U.K. government are working on a similar project— but unlike other smartphone tracking systems, the British version in development would be based on voluntary participation and bet on citizens inputting their information out of a sense of civic duty.
  • The U.S. government is in talks with companies like Facebook FB and Google GOOGL and other tech companies about tracking if users are social distancing using large amounts of anonymous, aggregated location data— this information is less precise, and more likely to anticipate outbreaks rather than pinpoint individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
  • 1.5 million Israelis have voluntarily downloaded a mobile app that alerts users if they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus— but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has still ordered that potential coronavirus carriers have their phones monitored, a controversial move the government says is necessary, as the 17% of the population using the app is not enough to fight off the pandemic.  
  • Moscow , on a city-wide lockdown since Monday, announced Wednesday that a new phone app that will officials to track the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the capital city would be launched on Thursday, saying the government will lend a smartphone to anyone unable to download the app.

Crucial quote: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against [coronavirus]. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps ,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told the The Washington Post. He made sure to note it “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

Key background: Private and public entities alike are looking for ways to fight off coronavirus as the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, there were more than 900,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 50,000 deaths.Officials told The New York Times NYT that The National Health Service, Britain’s centralized national health system, is trusted by citizens— and paired with the strong data privacy laws in place, said they think people would agree to join the effort to share their private information to help trace infections. However, American tech firms are reported to still be skeptical about sharing substantial data with the U.S. government ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was collecting information from the firms clandestinely. 

Surprising fact: The information tech companies have access to data that sheds light on Americans’ behavior in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Facebook analysis, restaurant visits fell about 80% in Italy and 70% in Spain— while Americans only stopped eating out at a rate of 31%.

Carlie Porterfield, Forbes Staff, Business

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