Office Watch has been ‘banging on’ about privacy and security for many years so we’ve been asked about the new or upcoming COVID-19 contact tracing apps.
Singapore and now Australia have these apps and its likely other countries will release their own apps. We’ll use the Aussie app as an example but our remarks apply to any contact tracing app.
Contact Tracing apps help monitor any close or extended contacts you have with other people., If one of those people are later diagnosed with COVID-19, the app will let you know that you’ve been near someone who could be infectious. It’s an important part of loosening the current lockdown rules and letting us all get back to something nearer to normal.
The app uses Bluetooth to connect with other devices nearby. It records an encrypted code identifying another person if they come within 1.5 metres or spend 15 minutes or more together. Your personal details are NOT sent to other people. Only the date/time of the contact is recorded, not the location (that’s not necessary).
We’re strongly in favour of the contact tracing apps because the problems and concerns are insignificant compared to the real human benefits of widespread use.
Centralized or Decentralized
Where the contact data is stored is a big issue and there’s differences in how each country is or is proposing.
Australia is taking a commendably ‘privacy first’ approach. All the contact data remains on each phone, it’s not shared without specific permission. If someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, they are asked to share their app data with health authorities who can contact people who may have been infected. The contact data is held on your phone for 21 days then deleted.
Other countries are proposing a more centralized approach where all the contact data is stored in a central location. The possibility of government agencies using the app for other purposes to locate individuals or track their movements. Collecting the personal info put into the app. Where the data is stored and by what company?
Whichever option is used, the aim is to make tracking the spread of the disease more efficient and warn possibly infected people faster. It also allows more efficient use of scarce testing options.
Privacy and other risks are small
There are understandable privacy concerns which we share. All the risks mentioned are either rare or entirely theoretical. None of the risks are anywhere near enough to justify refusing to install the app.
Some of the overblown headlines about problem are merely problems you’d expect with a new and unique type of app. Concerns about Bluetooth security are overstated
The app should have open code that anyone can download and view. All respected security and encryption code is open, so outside experts can check that there’s nothing hidden away. Australia has said their app code will be released, though they haven’t yet.
Extra battery use should be minimal because the app uses Bluetooth LE (Low Energy). Sure, a contact tracing app will use a little more battery power but you can say that about any app which uses Bluetooth or Wifi!
Apple and Google are working together to develop a common infrastructure across their platforms. That will be essential because a properly working app will need constant access to Bluetooth among other things.
The Australian app is limited to people with Apple or Google accounts linked to Australia. That excludes a significant group of people resident in Australia but with accounts linked to other countries like long-staying visitors, residents who want access to apps from other countries or languages. It’s a narrow-minded choice that should be changed. Anyone should be able to install a contact tracing app, regardless of their account ‘location’.
In our informal poll it seems the people who are most worried about the privacy of a COVID-19 tracking app are people who know the least about computer privacy or software. Anyone with some factual knowledge understands the small and unlikely risks are outweighed by the benefits.
Any decision to use computer technology is a question of balance. Balancing the benefits received with the privacy risk. Each of us make those choices all the time using social media like Facebook.
Microsoft’s ‘connected services’ like automatic alt text, PowerPoint Designer and Editor etc send details to the company in exchange for those features. Office-Watch.com often warns about that data sharing but most seem willing to accept the privacy risks.
Contact Tracing apps are good for each person using it, people around you, communities and the whole country.
Widespread use of contact tracing allows the loosening of restrictions earlier than would be possible otherwise. That means people can get back to work faster. It’s a smart use of modern technology.
We share the concern about COVID-19 tracing apps but those concerns are overwhelmed by the benefit to both individuals and society as a whole.
This is Real, not a drill
We’re dealing with human lives and livelihoods — not just some personal or corporate data leakage.
Everyone wins by the widespread use of a COVID-19 tracking app. Aussie Office Watchers have already installed the app. Peter will be installing a tracing app when it comes to the UK.
The Australian app asks for name during setup. Some people are putting in a false name. That’s OK, just remember what name you entered if someone calls to warn you about possible infection.
People should be more worried about the largely uncontrolled data sharing by Facebook, Twitter and other social media than a Coronavirus app.
Peter appreciates the help and contributions of friends in writing this article. Some of their comments …
” Nothing this app does or reports is going to be anything near the level of detail that Google, Apple and many others already know about my life, including the contents of this email (hello Google! and Apple!), where I am at the moment, what time i got up this morning, the calls I’ve made and messages I’ve sent so far today.”
“If it helps stop the spread I’m all for it”
“Strange that people are complaining about the vague non-specific concerns with the tracing app … doing it on Facebook and Instagram! “
“I had no issues with the privacy risks. There’s enough stuff out there about me anyway. Feel a bit more secure with this on my phone.”
“Given the extent of tracking by Google, the new Covid app hardly knows anything. I have it installed.”
“The needs of the many, outweigh those of the few, or the one.”