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Contact Tracing Technology in Covid-19 And What It Means for Your Privacy

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

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

quarantined areas.

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.

Privacy Concerns

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.


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