As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold in America earlier this year, it quickly became obvious that winning the battle would require several tactics. Doctors and nurses are focused on caring for patients and administering treatments. Scientists and researchers are working around the clock to develop a vaccine. And those in the technology sector are developing pieces of software that may play an expansive role in conquering this new invisible enemy.
Back in April, Apple and Google announced they would be joining forces to develop a framework that governments around the world, including America, could utilize when creating contact tracing apps to combat the spread of COVID-19. But almost immediately following the announcement, Americans began to question the necessity, effectiveness, and legality of a coronavirus tracing app. While there are certainly more questions than answers this early in development, we wanted to do our part and address some of the common concerns Americans have about the development and implementation of a coronavirus tracing app.
What has been completed with the tracing app so far?
Apple and Google both recently revealed sample code and screenshots of their framework to give health officials a glimpse into what their software can help them accomplish. Keep in mind that Apple and Google are not working on an app themselves. They are only providing the required software for interested parties to develop their own app based on their specific needs and processes. There’s still plenty of work to be done before we can start tracing COVID-19 through a downloadable app but the process has begun.
What range will a tracing app have?
Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) is at the core of the tracing concept. Why Bluetooth? It uses less battery power than other types of connections and is also considered standard technology between most different makes and models of smartphones. While Bluetooth will save battery power and provide a nearly universal connection to combat COVID-19, there are hurdles it presents as well.
In order for contract tracing to work, there needs to be a certain level of finesse when it comes to precision and range. There is still much room for improvement in this area. For example, alerting everyone who came within a 100 feet radius of an infected person won’t be effective, considering most infections are believed to occur within close range. There’s also the concern that obstructions, like walls, windows, and even pockets, could make it more difficult to accurately measure distance between users.
So the answer to this question is still a bit muddled. While Bluetooth can register connections over 300 feet away, there are many variables to consider. This is just one reason why health officials are still stressing the importance of social distancing and proper hygiene, even once a coronavirus tracing app goes live.
What type of information will a tracing app collect?
In late March, Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado admitted that the state was using cell phone tracking data to determine if residents were complying with the stay-at-home order. Every state has their own laws regarding cell phone tracking but this admission has many Americans wondering where the line will be drawn with tracing apps in regards to their privacy. Because it is up to each local level of government to define the specifics of their tracing apps, it’s impossible to say what type of data will be collected within each. But the technology Google and Apple are putting forth will utilize a decentralized approach.
Both developers have said the software won’t involve tracking user locations or collecting identifying data. Instead, after users decide to download the app and opt in to a Bluetooth-based proximity-detection system, their exposure to others will be logged through constant pinging of Bluetooth signals.
If two phones are within range of one another for several minutes, they will exchange unique, rotating identification numbers. These numbers are based on keys stored on each device rather than identifying data. Should a user be later diagnosed with COVID-19, their app will automatically upload such keys to a server, generate the related identification numbers, and send out notifications as needed.
This isn’t to say Bluetooth is failproof. It’s possible for an IP address to identify an app user. But compared to other systems, Bluetooth is the best way to protect privacy while attempting to slow the spread of the virus. For example, GPS-based location-tracking systems would collect location data. An app running on this type of system would require complex cryptographic systems to avoid exposing highly personal information. To summarize, personal data will not be collected by a tracing app using Bluetooth technology. But until each region develops their specific app, it’s impossible to guarantee every step of the process will be anonymous.
Can my data be leaked by a tracing app?
It helps that the framework provided by Apple and Google will rely on Bluetooth, which is more secure than Wi-Fi in most cases. And because the purpose of the software is to track COVID-19 and not people, it’s unlikely to require any input of personal data. So while there is a chance a tracing app can be hacked, there is little chance personal data could be obtained by hackers based on current information.
How do I download a coronavirus tracing app?
In America, nothing is available for download yet. Apple and Google have met their first deadline by releasing sample code. Now it’s up to states and their respective counties to decide whether or not they will use the framework to develop apps or not. Many areas are planning on relying on human tracers as well, with Chicago alone looking to hire nearly 4,000 contact tracers. However, once apps are available, they can be downloaded from your smartphone’s respective app store. You might also want to consider these questions before installing a tracing app.
Is a coronavirus tracing app an invasion of privacy?
This is a tricky question and one that many Americans have already made up their mind on, no matter which side of the fence they’re on. We’re all experiencing a world we’ve never lived in before and many of us have new thoughts on privacy, especially when the health of our loved ones comes into play.
Here’s the answer to this question from a legal perspective. Because the use of contact tracing is optional, it doesn’t violate any rights awarded by the Bill of Rights. It should be mentioned though that the pandemic has exposed several weaknesses in the framework of America, including a lack of privacy laws (the only state with data privacy legislation is California).
Some technology experts are pointing out that we should be more concerned with potential pitfalls rather than an invasion of privacy. For example, Bluetooth penetrates walls while the virus doesn’t. If someone in the room next to you has the virus, what will the app do to prevent a false warning from coming your way, and potentially unnecessary quarantine?
False-positives are another valid concern. While a doctor would need to input a code to confirm the diagnosis of COVID-19 for an individual, there is the chance that the test itself may not be accurate or that a diagnosis is made on symptoms alone without access to a test, a problem much of the country is still facing. So while privacy is a valid concern, there are other unfavorable scenarios to be aware of as well.
Will a coronavirus tracing app end the pandemic?
While it will likely play a role, a coronavirus tracing app is unlikely to be the only tool we use to end the COVID-19 pandemic. One major concern experts have is that the tracing app may not be available to everyone. For example, older or low-income citizens without smartphones won’t have access to their local app. There’s also the low whispers of Americans who plan to either refuse to download the app or temporarily stop using their smartphone until the pandemic has passed.
But even if all Americans download and use the tracing app, it won’t be a replacement for the current measures we’re taking, including testing, social distancing, staying home whenever possible, wearing masks, and frequent hand washing. There are still plenty of questions to ask as we continue to move through these trying times together. Check back with us at Avira for updates regarding the development of a coronavirus tracing app and what to expect during implementation.