In the global race to develop mobile apps to trace and protect people who have been exposed to a carrier of the COVID-19 virus, data security and privacy issues are often raised.
But during an online discussion forum Tuesday a Canadian governance expert said a more fundamental question needs to be answered: Are contact tracing apps necessary now?
Mass testing of Canadians and having a public health network response capacity for those who are ill are the real priorities, argued Bianca Wylie, a senior fellow at the Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Before worrying about technology solutions and the problems they may bring, “we need well-funded and well-financed public health.”
“The funding and financing of our health infrastructures,” she added, “is a place where our corporations — and particularly tech corporations — if they were paying their taxes properly would be doing a lot of good for what we need right now.”
Wylie was one of a group of four participating in the video town hall on the so-called “race to trace.” It was run by Ryerson University’s Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst, a cybersecurity training and education campus in Brampton, Ont.
Other participants were Murad Hemmadi, Ottawa correspondent for the news website The Logic; Richard Lachman, head of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, a business incubator; and Karim Bardeesy, executive director of Ryerson’s Leadership Lab, a think tank.
The forum took place days after Google and Apple announced a partnership to develop APIs for COVID-19 apps so Bluetooth-activated Android and iOS devices can signal each other at close range. An app would make a regularly-updated anonymous list of devices it has been near the previous 14 days. Anyone diagnosed positive for the virus agrees to register that on the app so it can automatically send a warning to those on owner’s device’s list. Depending on how an app is developed, recipients of the notice could be asked to watch for signs they’ve been infected, asked to self-isolate or to go immediately to a testing facility. No location or personal data would be recorded. Singapore has released a somewhat similar app.
The APIs might be ready next month, after which anyone could build user interfaces on top. Google and Apple want to work with health authorities.
Governments in the U.K., France and Germany are also working on tracking apps, which could work differently and may be location-based. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been quoted as saying three U.S. municipalities may soon sign deals to adopt its app. Canadian public health officials are looking at the potential.
Contact tracing using health authority staff is an established public health strategy to help slow the spread of an infectious disease. The problem is it needs a lot of people to be effective. Because almost every adult and teen carries a smartphone some think a mobile app could at least help supplement manual tracing. Ideally, it would help speed up getting people who don’t have the virus back to work.
But forum participants were skeptical. Bardeesy, who hosted the panel, said “this is a place where the runaway appetite for solutions to problems outpaces not only the understandings of most of us, but of our leaders as well.”
Reporter Hemmadi, who co-wrote an article this week on the different ways governments around the world are using smartphones to fight the spread of coronavirus, noted that beyond privacy apps may have limitations: If they use location data, they can’t place a person precisely geographically. Will an app signal a person on the third floor of a building is too close to someone immediately above them on the fourth floor? If adoption is voluntary and only a small percentage of people install it will the app be useful? Will there then be community pressure on people to install it? Who will verify a person has tested positive for the virus?
Lachman raised questions about whether health data collected here today by medical authorities here is really private. “Our record has not been great in the past,” he said, referring to 2013 news reports that mental health records of some Canadians were available to U.S. border agents.
He also worried that some companies think an app should use untested predictive monitoring. Some writers, he added, say this is a time for crisis thinking, and argue for using “any tool to get us out this situation, and then we’ll put it back in the box” with a sunset clause. But, Lachman added, that’s never been done with a technology that abused privacy.
To meet the problem of wide adoption, Bardeesy asked if a mandatory app could be created that collects personal data, with the promise that information will be destroyed at a certain point. Lachman was skeptical, arguing companies will be pressured to unlock data and anonymizing data has been problematic. “We haven’t solved these problems in 20 years,” he said.
“This is an immature regulatory space,” said Wylie. Hemmadi talked about huge “practical problems on the front end” posed by government bureaucracy, and asked if there capacity to build a national app which perhaps involves sharing health data.
With all the discussion about a possible tracking app Lachman said he’s disappointed politicians here aren’t loudly making protection of privacy a priority. He noted with approval proposed U.K. legislation by academics called the Coronavirus Safeguards Bill, which, among other things, would forbid prosecution of people with an app if battery on their mobile device runs out, or if don’t it doesn’t run the latest operating system. Things like that would make people comfortable with adopting an optional app, Lachman said.
“I want my government to be first out to say we will preserve your ability to have privacy” and that it will “slam down and prosecute” law enforcement or a branch of government that violates privacy. But, he added, few governments go so far.
For his part, Hemmadi noted the head of Canada’s Public Health Agency has talked vaguely of there being lots of app ideas that are being looked at. By contrast Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been quoted as promising the province will be “strictly enforcing quarantine orders to ensure compliance, including using technology like smartphone apps.”
For these and other reasons Wylie wants a federal framework for contact tracing apps released before apps are finished. However, Lachman fears public debate on the pros and cons of tracing apps will be stifled because of the “massive pressure” of hope that an app will get people out of their homes quickly.