The ability to trace contacts of individuals testing positive for COVID-19 may well be key to containing the virus as governments look to ease lockdown restrictions around the world. However, the words “track and trace” are likely to be alarming to data privacy advocates and potentially to others who might not have considered this already proven means of easing restrictions.
There are plenty of examples of track and trace approaches going on around the world in attempts to contain the virus. Some countries are taking a legislative approach to track-and-trace. South Korea already had legislation in place following the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) back in 2015, allowing health officials to “aggressively trace the footsteps of individuals who test positive for an emerging infectious disease.” In late March, Germany’s Federal Cabinet took similar steps, amending its Infection Protection Act to include measures designed to slow the infection rate of COVID-19.
Other countries are taking a consensual approach, whereby individuals download a smartphone app and voluntarily participate in a track-and-trace program. The Government of Singapore has deployed TraceTogether, an app that “uses a community-driven approach to identify close contacts of users.” According to the Singaporean government’s website, the idea is that having the app on a cell phone, with Bluetooth enabled, identifies other nearby phones also with the app and timestamps that point of contact. This information can then be used if one individual subsequently comes down with COVID-19, tracing those s/he has been in contact with and requesting that they self-isolate.
In Australia, the COVIDSafe app was launched just last week and already over 2 million Australians have downloaded it. However, for it to be successful around 70-80% of Australians with suitable smartphones need to download and activate the app—equating to approximately 40% of the Australian population (10 million people). In the UK a similar app is being trialed on the Isle of Wight this week.
Economies globally are suffering from the effects of the pandemic, with many governments borrowing heavily against future revenues to prop up businesses, and people are still dying. In order to limit those becoming infected with the virus—to get the rate of transfer (R0) below one (one person transfers the virus to one or fewer people)—being able to track and trace those who have been in contact with individuals testing positive for COVID-19 is essential. Track and trace can take place centrally (data uploaded to government server) or distributed (data remains on smartphones until some reports positive for COVID-19)—both present privacy and security issues which are currently being debated around the world.
Data privacy has been hard fought in many countries. Countries enacting either mandatory or voluntary approaches to track-and-trace must be abundantly clear about how data will be used, potentially even legislating controls to deal with this, if they hope to effectively address significant data privacy concerns. Only then can we begin to repay the individuals and organizations who have been at the forefront of this pandemic by lowering the risks they take every day.
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