Imagine standing in the supermarket line when your phone buzzes, and you already know what it means — a notification from a newly launched tracing app. Somebody, you don't even know who, has been tested positively for COVID-19, and you had contacted that person the other day. You slowly move to a cashier, pay for your groceries, and rush home. As soon as you arrive, you call the nearest drugstore to order an express test kit to check yourself for the coronavirus disease.
This is the new normal we have to put up with. Despite all privacy concerns, COVID-19 tracing apps have already been introduced in a number of countries, including Australia and Singapore. While public officials hope it is a temporary measure, experts believe apps are not going away soon. Until the vaccine is designed, governments will continue watching over us and monitoring our contacts, social interactions, and trajectories.
The question of whether technology can save us from the novel coronavirus and slow down the spread of the disease is still the subject of heated debate. To add a bit of clarity to this issue, we have looked into existing and evolving, tracing software and figured out how it works and what information it requires from a user.
The Australian government has recently presented COVIDSafe — an official COVID-19 tracking application that monitors every user running an app and notifies if they’ve been in contact with someone positively tested for the coronavirus disease. The app was launched in an effort to prevent the spread of a new virus in the country and ease the quarantine restriction without severe damage to society.
How Does COVIDSafe Work?
An Australian COVID-19 tracing app is already available in Play Market and the App Store, which you can easily access through the government’s website. When you install it on your device, the software asks for personal information and registers you in the system.
With the help of Bluetooth, the software tracks you get close to who also has the mobile app installed. The principle behind the app is simple: two mobile apps exchange encrypted API, which is stored on the device for 21 days. In case the user is positively tested for coronavirus disease, all people they contacted will be notified.
What Personal Data is Required to Use the COVID-19 Tracing App?
The app will ask your name or nickname (you are not required to fill out your real name), COVID-19 status, age range, mobile phone number, and postcode. You should also provide your consent for uploading your anonymous ID, which will be encrypted and stored on the server.
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has recently announced it is about to introduce the COVID-19 tracing app in the mid of May. The public officials believe that only complex measures can help to fight against the disease and keep citizens safe and healthy. The software will be applied along with manual tracing and medical testing. The more individuals contribute to social tracing, the better results we are going to witness soon.
How will the UK COVID-19 Tracking App Work?
The application will apply the same principles as its predecessors. Bluetooth, along with anonymous IPs, will be used to spot the COVID-19 cases and contribute to social distancing. However, the UK government is going to provide better interaction with software to speed up testing and promote social distancing.
Users will be able to notify them when they feel under the weather so that others could stay at home and limit their social activity. In case the user is negatively tested for the coronavirus disease, they can fill out this information, and the message “Everything is OK with you” will be automatically sent to all users, who have been in contact with that person.
TraceTogether was one of the first COVID-19 contact tracking applications launched in the world. It utilized Bluetooth to exchange information between the devices and track users’ social activity to spot the cases of infection. Later, its model was successfully applied to build similar tracking software in the regions with a rapid spread of the coronavirus disease.
How Does Trace Together Work?
The principle behind TraceTogether is pretty simple. You should follow three main steps to start using the application:
- Go to the Trace Together website, the App Store, or Play Market.
- Download the mobile app and provide your consent to use your data.
- Switch on Bluetooth and contribute to the community-driven tracing.
As with all other COVID-19 apps, TraceTogether uses Bluetooth to identify whether your phone was near another phone whose owner has been positively tested for coronavirus disease.
What Was the Outcome?
In Singapore, where the trust to government officials is higher compared to other countries, only 1 million citizens installed the tracking app on their devices. Experts believe that 20 percent of the country’s population is not enough to stop the pandemic and slow down the spread of the disease in the region.
The United States
The two tech giants — Apple and Google — banded together to build a revolutionary virus-tracking app that will help society to stay informed and increase the number of testing cases. This announcement raised a wave of excitement among healthcare officials, who had high expectations of the project. The technology might help the government to identify the regions with the rapid spread of the disease and map the pandemic’s range.
Are There Any Concerns?
Apple and Google have found themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it might be beneficial to enable the app to collect users’ data, such as geolocation or medical records, and transfer it to health officials for further analysis. This step could help take the pandemic under control, develop effective preventive measures, detect new outbreaks, and make more informed decisions.
On the other hand, loosening of smartphone rules will put users’ privacy at stake, which will discourage citizens from installing the software. Currently, tech behemoths are trying to strike a balance between keeping people informed on their social contacts and preserving their right for privacy and security.
South Korea has become one of the first countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Along with convention preventive measures, the government has launched many tech tools to monitor COVID-19 cases. Thus, people who have been tested positively, have to install a special application, which gathers their data, and keeps track of their movements.
What Data is Being Collected?
Locations data along with the state prolific CCTVs and transaction records are being gathered and processed. In contrast to its rivals, South Korean companies require users to fill out their real names and registration numbers so that the government could watch their location. When a person is positively tested for the disease, his/her routes are identified, and other people, who have visited the same places, get an alert on their phones.
Are There Any Concerns?
Some citizens express serious concerns about the privacy and security of their data. After the routes of the infected were published online, some users opposed the tracking system by leaving their smartphones at home. After that, public officials started mulling over the option to begin asking offenders to wear tracking wristbands.
So, to Track or not to Track?
The experience of 5 above mentioned countries have shown that COVID-19 tracking apps are effective to some point. They help to monitor the spread of pandemic and spot new outbreaks timely. However, there is a lot to be improved in terms of privacy of the users’ data. Striking the balance between data security and monitoring might become a key to such a long-expected success.
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