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Contact-tracing: Does the end justify the means?

With the recent launch of the beta version of Apple and Google’s jointly created contact-tracing technology, it is not surprising we have data protection and privacy at the forefront of our minds.

Apple and Google are collaborating to provide contact-tracing technology through their devices. With the use of Bluetooth, users will be notified if they have recently been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. Essentially, the goal is to use people’s smartphones to record when a person has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus to decrease the chance of infection through exposure.

If that person then tests positive for Covid-19, a subsequent alert will be sent to other users that may have been exposed or infected, urging them to get tested and to immediately self-isolate.

In the race to find a solution to slowing down the spread of the virus, there are already third party-apps in the market that are providing this functionality. Health authorities in countries such as France and the UK are developing their own contact-tracing apps which would be compatible with Apple and Google’s “exposure notification” software.

Failure to launch

One barrier health authorities are facing are compatibility issues around running their software on Apple iOS devices. The permitted use of Bluetooth on Apple devices by third-party apps is a restricted use which would compromise the apps ability to continually track an individual’s movements when it is operating in the background, such as when your phone is locked. Not only will third-party apps have restricted use of Bluetooth on iPhones, but these apps will also be competing for connectivity with other third-party apps which are also operating in the background of that device. Any third-party app would require uninterrupted Bluetooth connectivity to accurately broadcast and receive data in real time.

Apple has currently not relaxed these restrictions on the use of Bluetooth by third-party apps on iOS devices. However, Apple has agreed to drop these restrictions if health authorities adopt its scheme.

As numerous apps will continue to be built and developed in an effort to supress the spread of Covid-19, their efficiency will ultimately rely on Apple’s operating system to collect accurate data for health authorities. Should Apple be allowed to restrict or limit the use of Bluetooth technology during a global pandemic? Or do you think unrestricted access should be provided to bring the spread to a halt?

On Friday 1 May 2020, Apple and Google released a sample code to public health authorities to assist their developers to finalise their apps. Based on the beta version released on Wednesday 29 April 2020, it has been reported that the UK will not be adopting the scheme proposed by Apple and Google amidst privacy and performance concerns.

Collecting accurate data from Apple devices will be vital in bringing a halt to the spread of the virus however, this will likely come at a price – our privacy and personal data protection.

Please respect our privacy

For this technology to work, users will be required to “opt-in” and explicitly consent to sharing information with other users, albeit anonymously. Apple rightly places a high importance on privacy and addresses these concerns by ensuring that it will not store GPS or personal data and that the identity of each user will remain anonymous.

Recently, France has publicly called for Apple and Google to relax its privacy protections for contact-tracing functions, after concluding that France’s current plans would not work otherwise. One main challenge for these companies is that any software they offer to one country must also be provided to other countries, therefore the privacy and data protection measures in place must be compliant with the regulations of each particular region.

This would mean that Apple and Google would control even more of our data and regulate what data points are sent to government authorities. Although Apple and Google have restricted the type of data collected, questions in relation to protection and abuse will still need to be addressed.

Data is a valuable commodity, and with the recent privacy and data breaches by companies like Facebook, can we trust Apple and Google to log, store, regulate, and transmit our data safely to government authorities? Are we sure this data won’t be harvested and sold off to third-parties?

Much like with any new technology, there is never a guarantee that developers won’t exploit any weaknesses in privacy protocols. Does the end (slowing down the spread of the virus) justify the means (sacrificing your data privacy at a time when you are already sacrificing your personal freedom)? Are we prepared as individuals to risk our personal data protection and privacy for the greater social good of stopping the spread of the virus?

We are hopeful that this technology will provide a safe solution to identifying exposure to individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 to stop it from spreading, however we are concerned about the implications this will have on our privacy and the protection of our personal data. As we begin to imagine what a post-Covid-19 world would look like, we can’t help but wonder whether this crisis will redraw the lines on privacy, making these temporary concessions on privacy the new normal. Let us know what you think, we would love to hear from you! Send us an email or write in the comments section below.

Written by Maria Madara – Trainee Solicitor at KaurMaxwell

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