Contact Tracing Technology in Covid-19 And What It Means for Your Privacy
Updated: Oct 18, 2020
Author: Augustina Baker
Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus. At the time of writing this
article, there were more than 7.1 million Covid-19 cases confirmed worldwide. We don’t
know when Covid-19 will end and it's unlikely that we will return to normalcy without a
widely available vaccine. As researchers rush to create vaccines and medicines to stop Covid-
19, governments and public health authorities across the world are turning to contact tracing
to halt the spread of the deadly virus.
The World Health Organisation defines contact tracing as "the process of identifying,
assessing, and managing people who have been exposed to a disease to prevent onward
transmission" Manual contact tracing involves deploying thousands of people to track the
spread of the disease and find new infections. However, in the context of Covid-19, it’s clear
that technology will play a valuable role when it comes to managing the pandemic across the
How Effective Are Contact Tracing Apps?
Contact tracing apps seek to inform individuals that they have been in contact with a person
infected with the newly discovered coronavirus disease. Upon notification, such individuals
will be able to self-quarantine, get tested, and if need be, seek medical attention. In
Singapore, authorities are using a contact tracing app that detects other users in close
proximity via the exchange of Bluetooth signals between mobile devices.
Many governments in the region have managed to replicate Singapore’s contact tracing
technology with varying degree of success. The South Korean government created an app
that aims to trace the movement of individuals in quarantine. New arrivals from the airport
are required to install the apps on their phones. South Korean authorities have now started
issuing tracking bracelets due to people leaving their mobile devices behind when leaving
In March 2020, Indonesian authorities launched a similar Bluetooth-based tracking app to
mitigate the spread of the coronavirus disease. Contact tracing apps allow contact tracers to
notify those who have been in close contact with a Covid-19 patient quickly. Coupled with
aggressive mass testing regimes, contact tracing apps can provide an effective way to manage the Covid-19 pandemic and help the world return to normalcy.
However, the use of mobile devices has raised important questions about privacy and
security. There are concerns about possible misuse of the data collected by contact tracing
apps. Some contact tracing apps may even collect unrelated or unnecessary data. The
collection of data by contact tracing apps should be limited to the bare minimum.
Governments across the world are grappling with the task of deploying contact tracing
technology to curb the spread of Covid-19 while protecting individual rights and freedoms.
In the United States, tech giants Apple and Google are working together to build an API that
can be used in mass contact tracing. But given their past privacy concerns, the collaboration
between these companies is garnering a lot of attention. The ACLU has raised concerns about potential privacy and cybersecurity risks associated with this project. ACLU’s concerns range
from discrimination to potential overreach and voluntary participation.
Public Health Benefits
When it comes to managing Covid-19, contact tracing technology is cost-effective but ignites
privacy concerns. An ExpressVPN survey on contact tracing apps found that despite concerns
about potential data misuse, more than half of surveyed American adults are willing to
voluntarily download a contact-tracing app for the greater good. The vast majority of
respondents believe that authorities — as well as tech companies — might overstep their
boundaries with the data.
As researchers work on finding a vaccine for Covid-19, governments and public health
authorities must come up with effective ways to halt the spread of the virus. Most Americans
agree that the use of contact tracing technology to combat the spread of Covid-19 has
multiple public health benefits. Still, some states continue to steer clear of contact tracing
apps — resorting to manual contact tracing to track the spread of Covid-19, find new
infections, and support the reopening of the economy.
About the Author
Augustina Baker is a digital specialist at Techwarn, a digital safety advocate, warning tech users of the dangers in the digital world and empowering users to take control of their digital lives.