Safety and Privacy in the Time of COVID-19: Contact Tracing Applications

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Safety and Privacy in the Time of COVID-19: Contact Tracing Applications

Emre Kursat Kaya, Research Fellow

As the number of global COVID-19 confirmed cases passed 5 million, public and private actors are continuing to take measures to contain the pandemic. Government actions have varied from one country to another. While some countries have chosen to apply strict lockdowns, others have adopted laissez-faire attitudes. Yet, a common denominator for containing the spread of the virus has been the use of a trio of non-pharmaceutical interventions: social distancing, testing, and contact tracing for infected individuals.

While there are significant scientific and political debates on both social distancing rules and the number of testing, this paper focuses on contact tracing applications (apps). Contact tracing provides authorities information required to identify anyone who has been in relatively close contact with the subject individual. Health authorities widely use this instrument to create the list of at-risk individuals who a certain patient has been in contact with. Traditionally, manual contact tracing has been the most widely used method. It consists of interviews, CCTV footage analysis, credit card usage history, and other labor-intensive/time-consuming activities.

Digital contact tracing has been put forward by public authorities to automatize and accelerate the process. In most cases, the system requires the use of a smartphone to function. Currently, there is no universally adopted contract tracing method. Developed apps differ in several aspects. The main divergences are regarding the use of GPS location or Bluetooth data and the centralized or decentralized storage of data. The different models and their use in practice will be described in the second part of this paper.

Regardless of the type of application adopted, there are two large debates around the use of these digital tools to increase the safety of citizens. The first debate is about the efficacy of these apps. Are they game-changers? What is their potential impact on the fight against the virus? Effectiveness is an umbrella prerequisite that will be further fractioned in this paper.

The second debate regarding the widespread use of these apps is around privacy issues. What kind of data will these apps collect? Which are the measures to take to safeguard personal data? Is there a risk of mission creep? As for any policy intervention, and especially for one which suggests a trade-off between safety and privacy, a proportionality test must be envisaged.

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