COVID-19: Geolocation tracking fuels concerns around privacy and data protection

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COVID-19: Geolocation tracking fuels concerns around privacy and data protection

Sarah Wild

05 May 2020

5min min read
  • Epidemics
  • Human rights--Security

n response to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world are encouraging their residents to stay at home – some by request, others by force. But physical lockdowns are a blunt instrument to smother the spread of the novel coronavirus that has caused devastation worldwide. They limit people’s movements and curb infections, but are coming at a heavy economic toll. The International Monetary Fund has predicted the pandemic will cause a global GDP loss of about $9-trillion, which is greater than the economies of Japan and Germany combined.

Countries are now tentatively beginning to relax their physical lockdowns, but in order to do so they need to track the virus’ spread. Many countries are turning to digital location tracking in combination with widespread testing to trace its movement – and that of the people who carry it. Using cell phone data, authorities say, is a way to find out if residents have come into contact with someone infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the often fatal COVID-19. Knowing where these infected communities are would allow health authorities to rapidly contain the virus before it spreads to even more people.

From Mexico to South Africa, governments have requested that cellular providers furnish them with information about residents’ movements. China has relied on mass surveillance to suppress SARS-CoV-2, and Israel exercised emergency powers to collect cellular data for contact tracing. In Australia, telecommunications company Vodafone gave the federal government data on the locations of millions of residents so that the government could determine whether people had followed social distancing in the face of the pandemic.

Experts are divided about the issue, asking whether the possible benefits are outweighed by technical and privacy concerns.

“In principle, it’s a good idea, an alternative to economically damaging lockdowns,” says Jane Duncan, a journalism professor at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, and former head of the country’s Freedom of Expression Institute. “But there are big dangers in digital contact tracing that need to be mitigated against."

The first issue regarding cellphone tracking is a technical one: Is the data even useful? “Your network location data is not that detailed,” says data privacy researcher Murray Hunter. “It’s detailed enough to know more or less the neighbourhood I’m in, but whether someone has come into 1m or 20m of me, it can’t say.”

It also can’t say how long you were in contact. “That [infected] person may have passed you fleetingly,” says Duncan. “Both of you may have had your mouths covered, the transmissibility may have been low.”

" in authorities and tech companies is proving a major stumbling block to digital contact tracing using apps"

Many countries are augmenting their cellphone data with apps that combine GPS data with bluetooth signal to gauge how close devices come to each other. “In Singapore, for example, they only start to look at individuals if they have been in close proximity to each other for half an hour,” she says. “It cuts down on false positives [that you would get] if you look at everyone in the vicinity irrespective of the duration of time.

Singapore’s TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth to track Covid-19 contacts, but it has struggled with poor uptake as only 17% of the population has downloaded the app. According to that country’s The New Paper, government officials have suggested that the app should be compulsory. India also introduced an app, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is encouraging citizens to download it. Australia has also created a contact tracing app, and about 10% of its population downloaded it following its release.

On the other side of the spectrum, Germany has shelved its plans for an app that centralises people’s data and European countries have voiced concerns about the collection data in a central repository. They are suggesting, instead, that contact-tracing data from apps is stored on people’s phones and people can choose whether to share their data with the state.

Tech giants Apple and Google have also joined the race to try and trace SARS-CoV-2 infections. They require people to download their apps in order to collect the data – but trust in authorities and tech companies is proving a major stumbling block to digital contact tracing using apps.

That sort of consent is not required for cellular data, though. In fact, in countries where legislation allows authorities to access cellular providers’ data, citizens do not know that their data has been acquired. In South Africa, which has passed a number of regulations to try and mitigate data privacy concerns, citizens will only find out that the state has been watching their movements months after the fact.

The most pervasive concern around the acquisition of people’s data is “function creep”, which is when governments collect data for one reason and then use it for another. This is particularly of concern in places where humanitarian abuses are already rife. Critics worry that, while the data will initially be collected to track Covid-19, it will also be put to other uses, such as spying on political rivals or sold to companies.

This data usually sits with state security agencies. In Israel, for example, the country’s security service Shin Bet collects the data from cellular providers. South Africa, as one of its safeguards, has located this data within its health ministry – and officials say that, although the state will continue to hold on to the data, it will be de-identified six weeks after collection.

But storing data is a fraught process – and these repositories, filled with detailed personal data, will draw the attention of hackers.

“With a large, single database, there’s always the possibility of a leak or a hack before the data has been de-identified,” says Duncan. “[In South Africa], the government has been the victim of hacks before, the police even. This is not outside the realm of possibility that this could happen.”

In fact, countries all over the world have seen confidential data being hacked or leaked, including cyber-security powerhouses like the United States. The proposed apps are also another possible vulnerability. Last month, an app proposed to the Netherlands government was found to have been compromised and leaked individuals’ private data.

But as the disease spreads through populations, governments are looking for solutions that will allow them to track infections while also opening their economies.

The alternative to digital contact tracing is sending people out into communities to physically search for COVID-19 cases. This comes with problems of its own. Not only is it expensive and laborious, it increases physical contact between people and puts an increased number of citizens and health workers at risk of contracting the virus. It is also impossible to do on the same scale that digital-tracing provides.

The reality is that countries cannot sustain hard lockdowns indefinitely. Countries all over the world are opening their economies, unable to cope with the strain of keeping their businesses shut and citizens indoors. “Globally, we’re seeing lockdowns starting to be lifted,” says Duncan, “and there’s a danger of another wave of infections. Increasingly, countries are going to be looking for an alternative.”

(Main image: Australia's COVIDSafe app as seen on an iPhone on the day the government released it to the public as a way of speeding up contacting people exposed to coronavirus, on April 26 2020. - James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.