The coronavirus pandemic has pretty much changed the “normal” that everyone was used to and there’s no telling if things will ever be exactly the same.
In some ways that’s a positive, for instance, people are much more aware of handwashing and the surfaces they touch. But in several other ways it’s a negative… it was nice not having to worry about getting seriously ill just from going to the grocery store.
One way that our lives in New Jersey, and around the country, may change is through the use of contact tracking phone apps to help contain COVID-19 as things open back up.
Some people may look at contact tracing as a safeguard, much like the virus protection you put on your computer. For others, the thought of being tracked is a big intrusion.
Which is it… good or bad? We’ll go through what we know so far about plans for contact tracing apps to help prevent another large outbreak and what they mean for your privacy.
What Does a Contact Tracing Phone App Do?
Contact tracing is one of the proven strategies used to help prevent the spread of contagious diseases. It has been done by phone and in person for years, but with the advent of technology, a smartphone app is being looked at as a way to do it more efficiently.
When someone is found to have an infection, like COVID-19, contact tracing is done to find everyone they may have come into contact with while contagious, so those people can also be quarantined and tested. The goal is to contain the disease and keep it from spreading.
MIT, Apple, and Google have been in the news recently because it was announced that they’ve been working on a COVID-19 contact tracing smartphone app.
What the app would do is use Bluetooth to track users. If an app user indicates they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus, the app would be able to track which other app users they had been near so those users could be notified that they may have been exposed.
The Good, Bad, Ugly of Contact Tracing Apps
Like anything else in the technology world, this type of app has both positives and negatives that can impact how helpful it is, and exactly who it’s helping.
Some of the benefits of contact tracing apps include:
- Faster Notification: If a majority of people used the app, it would mean faster notification of COVID-19 exposure so people could get tested and get any needed help faster.
- Prevent Another Lockdown: The goal of contact tracing is to prevent another lockdown like we just went through by identifying anyone that’s been exposed to the virus and quarantining them as soon as possible.
- It’s Meant to Be Voluntary: For those that are worried about being tracked without permission, the voluntary nature of the app should help put their mind at ease.
- Costs Much Less Than Manual Tracing: Automating contract tracing by using an app is much less of a cost burden on states and cities and can also reduce problems when someone doesn’t know everyone that they’ve been near.
Here are some of the negatives of the contact tracing app idea having to do with functionality.
- Voluntary Use Might Negate Benefits: Because the app is meant to be voluntary, there might only be a small percentage of users, negating its helpfulness.
- Is It Really Anonymous?: The data that is collected by the contact tracing app is supposed to be anonymous, but with it being tied to each user’s smartphone data, many find that hard to completely believe.
- It Could Be Abused: Because the app would rely on user input, what happens if someone wants to inconvenience a whole lot of people and indicates they’ve tested positive when they really haven’t?
Some of the biggest concerns when it comes to a contact tracing app have to do with data privacy and personal privacy.
- What Happens to the Data Being Collected?: Once the location and health data is collected from users, it’s nearly impossible to ensure it won’t be used for advertising or other purposes.
- Big Tech Hasn’t Shown Itself to Be Trustworthy: There are several examples in recent years where user privacy was violated by big tech companies like Facebook and Google. While they may get fined by federal agencies, users often are the recurring victims, which makes the app another big privacy risk.
- The Government Might Decide to Keep It: Once the genie is out of the bottle, if a contact tracing app proves effective, governments may decide its health benefits outweigh privacy concerns and make it mandatory to use for other reasons in the future.
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