Privacy concerns limit reach of contact tracing apps

Easing Americans’ privacy concerns remains the biggest challenge for health officials who believe contract tracing apps can prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Only half of Americans said they would participate in non-mandatory contact tracing programs, according to a May Axios-Ipsos poll. Another survey of health officials by Business Insider found that only three states — Alabama, North Dakota,and South Carolina — said they would use contact tracing software provided by Apple and Google. 

Concerns about the apps have been exacerbated by widespread misinformation about apps such as Healthy Together and ABTraceTogether. Rumors have spread on Twitter and Facebook tracing apps give public health officials the ability to monitor not only you, but also your contacts.

How they work

Contact tracing apps work by using GPS to create a digital diary of places that a person visits.. If someone tests positive for coronavirus, the diary makes it easy for them to provide information about where they have been over the past 14 days, and allow contact tracers to inform people in those businesses that they may have been exposed.

The apps can also communicate with other phones nearby through Bluetooth to create a list of people who may have come into contact with the person using the app.

Apple and Google have partnered to create a Bluetooth contact tracing app.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that this type of system has advantages over the GPS technique because it may offer more privacy protections. Additionally, it may be able to more precisely identify who came into contact with an infected person, according to an ACLU report on contact tracing.  

“It would not be perfect at identifying when two phones were in close contact, but it would be more accurate and would result in fewer false positives,” said the report. “In addition, it would not use geolocation data, which can be incredibly revealing and privacy-invasive.”

In the U.S., the use of contact tracing apps is voluntary. But they can only be effective if the public is willing to use them. 

A report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security emphasized the importance of ensuring privacy on the success of contact tracing apps saying that, “without the ability to reassure concerned citizens and privacy activist groups that sensitive information will be respected and safeguarded, there may be significant opposition to a systematic contact tracing program being initiated, and individuals may be unwilling to participate.”

North Dakota’s Care19 App

The tech startup ProudCrowd developed one of the first tracing apps in the U.S. for use in North and South Dakota. So far, more than 34,000 North Dakotans have downloaded their Care19, which represents about 4% of the state’s population. According to Vern Dosch, North Dakota’s  contact tracing facilitator, those numbers represent a good start, but health officials there would like to see at least 70,000 people using the app. 

For anyone infected in North Dakota, the Care19 app will  give public health workers critical information, details that people may have a hard time remembering. . 

The contact tracer is going to say, ’Help me recreate the last 14 days,’” said Dosch. “If you forget a person, if you forget a location, that could mean that they’re in harm’s way.”

The app that has been released uses GPS tracking, but another version of the app that uses Bluetooth, which is being developed by Apple and Google, is supposed to be launched soon. Both versions have their advantages and disadvantages.

“If you are in the western part of North Dakota, and there’s a lot of farms and ranches, you’re probably not in contact with a lot of people, then GPS probably is more appropriate,” he said. 

“If you’re on a major college campus in North Dakota, where there’s a lot of interaction and a lot of students … or one of the major cities, then it probably makes sense to use the Bluetooth technology,” he added. 

Care19 reportedly  violated its privacy policy by sharing data with a third party, Foursquare, which sells location data to marketers. “That dip that we make into a third party database has been viewed as sharing information,” but Dosch said that the app has high standards for privacy. 

“Our legal agreements with them (Foursquare) are very explicit, that they cannot legally share any data. But the fact is, there’s really no data to share, when you sign up for the app. You’re not asked for name, phone number, email address, nothing.” Dosch said that Foursquare is used by the app to help identify businesses or buildings that a person may be in at their GPS location.

Some experts have also raised legal and ethical concerns regarding the privacy of individuals’ health data that contract tracing apps collect 

“Secure health data is very important here in the United States” said Joseph Ali, Assistant Professor of International Health at Johns Hopkins University “It raises questions about how consent would occur for collection and use of that kind of data.”  

The ACLU has proposed privacy guidelines for the creation of contact tracing apps,  which include making the apps voluntary, anonymizing data, and ensuring location information is contained locally on users’ devices. 

How do US adoption efforts compare to other countries 

The approach to contract tracing apps differs internationally, with some countries putting more emphasis on personal rights while others prioritizing public health over personal privacy. 

For example, South Korea has a centralized database of individuals’ personal information who tested positive for COVID-19, and their routes of movement are publicly accessible. While this certainly led to a drop in cases, it also reportedly led to a drop in business and stigmas in certain regions of the country where identities of those infected was publicly known. 

Soram Cheon, a South Korean journalist based in the US, said that people who traveled abroad or came in contact with infected people were most likely to use the apps. 

“The government needs to know if they’re staying at home or not, and following the rules of quarantine,” she said. “But my friends who (already) live in Korea, they didn’t download the contact tracing apps. 

Cheon added that unlike American contact tracing apps, location tracking is used to monitor the degree to which those ordered to quarantine are following the rules. Smartphone users are also not allowed to opt out of location-based emergency messages that alert them of certain mini-hotspots. 

“If they don’t move their phone for a while, the officer will call them to check if they are at home or not,” she said. 

New Zealand used a contact tracing app called NZ COVID, which allows users to scan QR codes at buildings and businesses they enter. The New Zealand app is similar to the Care19 app in that they are both supposed to act as digital diaries of where people have gone. 

New Zealand’s app has been criticized for requiring people to scan every time they go somewhere. Additionally, not all businesses have QR codes to scan, so the coverage of New Zealand’s app may be less than one that uses Bluetooth.

Still, many believe the app helped New Zealand recover from the pandemic more quickly than others. On Monday, it announced that there were no active coronavirus cases in the country.

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