Privacy amid a pandemic: A COVID-19 app study warns against erosion of civil liberties

Speaking at the United Nations on 12 June, India praised the role of technology in helping the country handle the coronovirus epidemic, and noted that the rapid development of mobile applications and exposure to artificial intelligence-based test kits has enabled the country’s efforts Enabled.

India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu, speaking at a virtual high-level debate on the Sustainable Development Goals and the impact of rapid technological change on targets, said that new technologies such as drones and tracing apps should be more acceptable during COVID- She went. 19 Epidemic They were the first.

He singled out the Arogya Setu mobile app. The app was launched by the Indian government on 2 April to help people assess the risk of getting infected with coronovirus and vigilant authorities if they came in contact with an infected person.

“New technologies offer incredible promise: by increasing the productivity of systems while reducing emissions and waste; to increase food security and efficiency of global supply chains, or to discover breakthroughs in areas such as new drugs, or new materials.” He said, “We have to remember that once a new technology comes over you, if you are not part of the steamer, you are part of the flat road.”

Addressing the same meeting, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned against the use of digital technology. “Digital technology is central to almost every aspect of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from vaccine research to online learning models, e-commerce and tools enabling millions of people to work and study from home. ” In addition, he said, COVID-19 has provided dramatic evidence of threats ranging from undisclosed use of digital technology, boycott and inequality to surveillance, human rights abuses and cybercrime. “The epidemic has introduced some of the most circumspect surveillance techniques we have seen, along with a significant increase in malleable ransomware attacks on hospitals and healthcare facilities. Meanwhile, the risk of digital fragmentation continues to increase, geopolitical division. , Technical competition. And polarization, “he said.

In the ongoing debate over the dangers of privacy and technical over-access, both sides incited opposing sides. This is a nuanced subject: there is no leeway in the effectiveness and efficiency of contact-tracing and clinical applications in helping the world deal with epidemics, while eliminating antidote. Large-scale monitoring may also become a necessity at some point if the current situation is not reduced. But where do we draw the line in the sand?

In the fight for life and livelihood, where is the convenience of privacy?

A recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne by Tanushree Sharma and Masuda Bashir Analyzed approximately 50 COVID-19 apps found on the Google Play Store and noted the lack of privacy measures. He argued in the report: “Fear and uncertainty often prevailed over civil liberties; however, as learned from past crises, such as [in the US] The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, regaining lost independence can be difficult. ”

“Healthcare providers should fully use whatever means are available to save lives and limit the spread of the virus. But it depends on the rest, especially in the area of ​​information privacy and security, Which is to ask the necessary questions to protect the right. Privacy, “he said. The study showed random ‘noise’ artificial intelligence-generating ‘normalization of people’s data, along with being able to protect users’ privacy. Noise ‘or anonymity with additively homomorphic encryption and message-based methods is suggested.

Norway is a good example of that push and pull happening in real time. Norway has suspended the use of its smartphone app to track and trace coronovirus clusters following a public spat between health officials and the information watchdog. Geir Bukohome, an official at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said the decision to remove the data and gather further information from the app should increase the infection rate to weaken the country’s preparedness. The app was being tested in three municipalities. But, among other data, the Norwegian Data Protection Agency said that the low infection rate meant that collecting data on the app may no longer be appropriate for privacy concerns. According to NIPH, there are currently between 50 and 100 cases of COVID-19 virus in Norway. Each week there are 20 to 50 new cases. Fearing a second wave or outbreak of infection, the Health Directorate will argue in a meeting with the data watchdog that the technology should be switched back on.

What does the study tell us?

According to the study, 48 percent of the total COVID-19 apps in the Play Store were information tools, 34 percent were tracking devices, 10 percent were evaluation tools, and 8 percent were scientific research tools. India ranks highest in the number of mobile applications related to coronovirus. Researchers note that compared to previous infectious-disease outbreaks such as the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic and the 1957 ‘Asian flu’ epidemic, the COVID-19 emergency is occurring in a much more connected and digital world. But, while governments around the world emphasized location surveillance, researchers point out that fear and uncertainty often triumph over civil rights and privacy rights can be a casualty of coronoviruses. The study found that only 16 of the 50 apps analyzed stated that user data would be anonymous, encrypted, and secure; 20 out of 50 were released by governments and administrations.

So for what purposes do the most common coronovirus apps work? Some provide live maps and updates to confirmed cases, others relay real-time-location-based alerts, and still others monitor and control household isolation and quarantine, direct reporting to the government and self-reporting of symptoms Provide systems for. “Some of the more advanced services include self-assessment of daily physical status; monitoring critical parameters such as temperature, heart rate, oxygen, and blood pressure through the use of Bluetooth-enabled medical devices; virtual medical consultation;” Research.

Researchers found that worrying is that they analyzed 30 out of 50 apps to allow users multiple access to mobile devices. “Some sought access to contacts, photos, media, files, location data, cameras, device IDs, call information, WiFi connections, microphones, full network access, the ability to change Google service configurations and network connectivity. Audio settings, “According to the study.

“In addition, some apps explicitly state that they will collect information about a person’s age, email address, phone number, and postal code; device location, unique device identifier, mobile IP address, and types of operating systems and browsers ; mobile device.”

Countries working on such measures

In Australia, more than 3 million people have downloaded an app deferred by the Prime Minister, who compared it to the ease of applying sunscreen, saying that “more app downloads will lead to a more free economy and society”. Utah became the first US state to adopt a similar approach, developed by a social media startup that first focused on helping young people hang out with nearby friends. Both these apps record the digital trail of strangers that a person encounters. Utah goes even further, using the location of an appliance to help track which restaurants or stores users have visited.

The government of Cyprus is encouraging the voluntary use of locally developed cellphone applications to detect people who have come in contact with someone carrying a coronavirus. This information is stored in a mobile phone’s log file and will be available to users who test positive for the virus that they share with public health officials. Officials will then use the data to locate someone who may be close to the infected person.

Tech giants Apple and Google together launched a contact-tracing software that would allow public health officials worldwide to create mobile applications to inform people whether they come into contact with a coronovirus-infected person or not. . Both companies have assured that the “exposure notification” tool does not breach an individual’s privacy and also shies away from collecting users’ location details.

-Inputs from agencies

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