Digital contact tracking: advantages and disadvantages
Governments around the world continue to face the crisis that is getting worse and are developing plans to manage the pandemic, with many of them considering the benefits of digital surveillance networks.
With the advent of 5G networks and more mobile devices, digital surveillance can provide near real-time contact traceability to quickly identify and manage infections at the municipal or community level, predict the need for medical resources to be allocated when needed and measure compliance with local emergency regulations and guidelines.
The technique has been used successfully in several countries. In South Korea, the government used smartphone location tracking, closed-circuit TV (CCTV) images and credit card transaction data to map transmission chains. They also released public notices and anonymous records of movements, when individuals had positive results. Israel has made it possible for mobile operators to share smartphone location data and track COVID-positive patient history.
Meanwhile, in China, Alipay launched a platform that captures the history of smartphone locations at certain “checkpoints”, assigning color codes to identify citizens who may have the virus and share relevant information with local authorities. Russia has also followed suit with similar initiatives to track smartphone geolocation data.
CDC director Robert Redfield emphasized the need to introduce vigorous contact tracking and highlighted the government’s efforts to assess smarter ways to make surveillance more efficient and successful. Although the U.S. plan to install digital surveillance systems is still in progress, scientists and technology companies are researching location tracking approaches that do not rely on direct, continuous geo-location data.
Union of giants
Google and Apple, two of the world’s largest technology companies, recently announced a collaboration to jointly develop national contact tracking APIs. These APIs will use Bluetooth data transmitted between nearby devices to determine the proximity of these mobile devices without collecting location data from any specific individual. Every device connected to the Internet has a unique IP address that identifies it. Many of us do our best to hide our IP addresses.
However, with this technology, when enabled, individual phones exchange anonymous verification beacons, also known as “chirps” or “keys”. They change within minutes to prevent identifiers from being linked to a specific individual or device. The devices store this information locally for 14 days and record all meetings with independent users of the application.
If users test positive for COVID, they can choose to allow their anonymous interactions to be shared locally by the cloud to notify these contacts of their exposure. Apple and Google will implement these features directly into Android and iOS software in the near future to allow people to participate without the added effort of downloading apps.
Analyzing the pros and cons of digital contact tracking
Innovations in scanning and tracking applications are not limited to the healthcare sector, they can also be found in other sectors, such as finance and banking. The new approach to digital contact tracking offers several significant advantages over the global use of conventional contact tracking and alternative methods of digital surveillance.
Digital tracking offers a scalable approach when compared to traditional contact tracking, which is usually based on memories of patients’ recent exposure to others. As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, traditional efforts to track contacts are unlikely to continue and they definitely require a battalion of health professionals. Current opt-in participation, rotary keys and short-term data storage offer significantly better confidentiality than most systems deployed internationally.
Government monitoring activities in South Korea use mobile location data, credit card records and CCTV images to monitor and track positive individuals and predict access points. With the assistance of the authorities, the Chinese government is demanding that software be adopted that identifies the risk levels of individual contagion and authorizes people to enter public spaces. However, this type of intensive monitoring initiative is unlikely to be widely adopted.
The new development of Apple and Google should encourage domestic adoption and, at the same time, establish better privacy than many other international digital surveillance systems. Cloud security has improved a lot recently, and considering that Android and IoS are present in almost 99% of current mobile devices, Apple and Google are in the best position to scale any digital tracking tool between 80% of Americans and almost 50% of the global population that owns a smartphone or tablet.
The technology giants manage to comply, bringing a product aimed at the mass market in a shorter time. System information can only be shared with public health authorities, in order to facilitate the management of the pandemic. Contact tracking data will play a crucial role when providing training and instruction on state and municipal policies.
While the contact tracking solution now presented by Apple and Google has enormous potential when compared to traditional approaches, concerns over perceived confidentiality and data privacy remain major challenges with regard to membership fees. Some compare current digital tracking efforts as a transfer of power over confidentiality to the government, just as it did when the government increased its supervisory authority after 9/11.
If the anonymity of the tracking data is compromised, people can be tracked longitudinally.
With increasing occurrences of cyber attacks, cloud hosting of confidentially identifiable beacons can also compromise online security, as there may be a hack attack and re-identification of all consolidated lists of identity markers. Governments could also try to reinforce the use and adoption of these techniques. In addition to data protection, the quality and operability of the data are pointed out as main concerns for the effectiveness of the program.
Among the possible information gaps that can cause “false positive” alerts are: accurate measurement of the distance from the device, the duration of exposure and a high probability of cases in which people live in highly dense buildings, divided only by walls. Theoretically, false negatives can also occur if the phone does not transmit a Bluetooth signal through a transmission failure or if a brief interaction is not detected.
Countering privacy and confidentiality concerns, as well as unnecessary panic, will likely be instrumental in promoting the adoption of a new system, which will have a large and powerful influence on the development of behavioral changes at the social level.