Is It Time to Start Tracking The Apps That Are Tracking Us?

  • 19/06/2020  |
Is It Time to Start Tracking The Apps That Are Tracking Us?

Contact tracing apps all over the world have been sparking worry about privacy issues. Therefore the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched its Covid Tracing Tracker project to make sure they don’t become a danger to civil liberties.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed, increasing effort worldwide has been invested in what the World Health Organization has called the “backbone of the response” to the virus: contact tracing.

Contact tracing – which has been crucial in halting the spread of other illnesses, including Ebola – involves tracking down all those people infected persons have been in contact with in the days before falling ill so that they can be warned to self-isolate. Where it has been employed it has been vital in slowing Covid-19 outbreaks and keeping death rates relatively low.

Countries around the world have been rushing to develop apps to automate the process and allow people’s phones to identify and notify all those who come into contact with a carrier, in the hope that this will be more efficient than manual tracing.

Some of these apps are being developed by small groups of programmers and others by vast global corporations, and much about them and their potential effects on society remains unknown, including exactly what data they will collect, who that data will be shared with, and whether policies exist to stop them from being abused.

Understandably, this has sparked worry around whether contact tracing apps are simply a useful supplement to manual tracing or whether in the wrong hands they might risk becoming a danger to civil liberties.

With this in mind, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has launched its Covid Tracing Tracker project to document the various apps designed to detect Covid-19 exposure. It ranks tracking apps by five criteria which it has developed on the basis of principles put forward by the American Civil Liberties Union and others: is the app voluntary? Are there limitations to how collected data can be used? Will data be destroyed after a period of time? Does the app collect only the data it needs to perform its function? And are its architecture and policies publicly available? Apps get one star for each positive answer. MIT says that its database shouldn’t be seen as giving recommendations but aims simply to provide data to help people make informed decisions about whether or not to use a given service.

Obviously, the tracker is a work in progress and the information it contains is constantly being updated as more apps become available. So far 29 automated contact tracing apps from around the world have been included: the results can be seen here and give a clear idea of the radically different levels of surveillance and transparency of the various apps.

Tracing apps undoubtedly have the potential to play an essential role in the handling of Covid-19 outbreaks. Used incorrectly, though, they could also present a serious threat to democratic process. It’s therefore vitally important that we ensure their use isn’t exploited by developers, governments or anybody else for their own ends, and the MIT Covid Tracing Tracker project provides invaluable scrutiny that can help us do just that.

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