Google and Apple decided in April 2020 to team up for developing a new contact tracing app in which user’s name and location will not be stored or shared. This is to uphold the privacy rights and to prevent governments from compiling data of their citizens.
For this reason, both Apple and Google have banned GPS data collection in contact tracing apps in their operating systems.
Such an action can be best understood by examining the process of contact tracing, its advantages and disadvantages.
What is contract tracing and how does it work?
Contact tracing is done for identifying people who have come in contact with the infected person, followed by informing the listed contacts of their contact status and preventive measures. After that, contacts are followed-up for appearance of symptoms.
Conventionally, this is done through interviews and phone calls tracing contact history for around two weeks or so.
Advantages of using contact-tracing apps
The six advantages of contact-tracing apps make it an essential tool for pandemic control.
- China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have successfully flattened the curve on Covid-19 by using contact-tracing apps in the early phase of the pandemic spread when it is most effective.
- For those in essential services, contact-tracing app will provide an effortless solution rather than regular manual reporting, especially when the staff is overworked and functioning in stressed conditions.
- Availability of information on possible Covid-19 positive cases or areas around oneself will allow panic control and mobilize informed precautions based on the directions in the app, thus, reducing the burden on government resources.
- Immediate reporting of cases through app allows swift action by the authorities.
- The app can directly counter misinformation and fake news using chat option.
- User’s Covid-19 negative status on app can work as an immunity card and help in providing other facilities, for example, Arogya Setu is slated to be used for issuing e-pass for travelling from one place to another.
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Disadvantages of using contact-tracing apps
Despite all the advantages, these five aspects need attention to make such apps work better-
- Track map produced by an app is not full proof as it depends on many prerequisites, such as-
- If only everybody chooses to install the app.
- If only phone doesn’t go dead.
- If only Bluetooth is not turned off.
- If only one carries his/her mobile everywhere.
- The transmission route of Covid-19 has still not been completely determined by scientists, which is why, the logic of tracking apps produces very limited results.
- Huge number of casual interactions need to be filtered out to reach actual transmission numbers. This makes digital contact-tracing as labour intensive as the conventional tracking process.
- These apps might also gather additional information other than just users’ location without their consent. Disadvantaged and stigmatized sections like LGBTQ may face increased bias.
- Governments can enforce mandatory installation of contact-tracing app and create a surveillance state which may not go away even when the pandemic has.
In this respect, the judgement of Supreme Court that the use of Aarogya Setu can’t be mandatory is significant.
Some solutions for transparency
Following four steps can be taken to ensure privacy and wider adoption of contact tracing apps on voluntary basis-
- Because of the general distrust of private companies or governments for accumulation of data, contact-tracing apps can be independently designed by WHO or UN in consultation with leading medical experts for just use and then distributed from thereon.
- Option to donate data rather than compulsory acquisition of data will provide more agency to the users.
- Conventional methods of contact-tracing should be used along with digital contact-tracing.
- Communication must be made about what happens to the data and the app once the pandemic is under control.
Overall, importance of contact tracing apps cannot be undermined and a continuous discussion with technical experts and dialogue with civil society will ensure the development of safe contact-tracing apps that are in sync with the basic liberties of individuals.
Moreover, the limitations of contact-tracing apps, such as reporting false positives and lack of smartphone penetration, need to be compensated through the use of conventional contact tracing methods. Tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft have already flagged the issue that apps cannot replace humans and their expert opinion should be taken seriously.
This article series is a part of ForumIAS's Qrious Project. You can find other article in the series HERE→
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