June 5, 2020

What is Contact Tracing and What Does it Mean For Your Data Privacy?

Contact tracing is by no means a new concept. But, in the digital age, the process surrounding contact tracing is becoming all the more sophisticated.

As most of we begin to emerge from our COVID-19 quarantine, the world is looking to contact tracing to track, trace, and control the spread of the virus.

But, how does contact tracing work and how will it impact your data privacy?

Let’s explore.

What is contact tracing and how does it work?

Contact tracing exists to identify people that may have been in close proximity to someone infected by an illness or virus (these people are referred to as ‘contacts’) in a particular area or region.

By tracking, tracing, and ultimately treating infected individuals in a controlled, timely manner, it’s possible to reduce the spread of a transmittable disease, preserving vital resources while tackling the issue at its core.

Contact tracing has been around for decades and has proved pivotal in the fight against infections including tuberculosis, SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, and now, COVID-19.

The general steps of contract tracing are as follows:

  • Track: Source infected individuals and taking measures to help prevent any further spread.

  • Trace: Communicate with infected individuals to understand their movements and gauge who they may have been in contact with to develop a control strategy.

  • Treat: If a treatment is necessary, or available, it is usually administered. But, in many cases, treatment will involve monitoring symptoms and periods of quarantine to reduce the chance of further infection.

Contact tracing in the digital age

While contact tracing has proved effective for decades, in the digital age, we have the opportunity to accelerate its success—and the global fight against COVID-19 is putting this notion to the test.

Governments across the world over are developing applications to place contact tracing into the hands of the people. In addition to some of the state-sanctioned innovations currently in development, Google and Apple have teamed up to launch their own brand of COVID-19 contact tracing technology.

An Exposure Notification API that public health agencies can use to develop tracing apps, the Bluetooth alert system is set to roll out in new software iOS and Andriod phone updates.

The tech colossus’ believe that by giving smartphone users the choice opt-in and use the technology, contact tracing will become all the more effective in terms of tackling the virus.

How safe is contact tracing?

Both Apple and Google have made it clear that their new contact tracing innovation is privacy-preserving—and that users have the choice to opt out—but, like any digital other digital innovation, how can we be sure?

By its nature, contact tracing technology will track your geographical movements to a point. While Google and Apple have put stringent measures in place (including modifications to its ‘tracing key’) to protect the data privacy of its users, at this point, it’s impossible to say just how watertight these measures will be.

Moreover, some tech experts believe that Apple’s contact tracing API may give users a false sense of security and are concerned that certain governmental bodies will use the technology as a cheap substitute for crucial investments in human-centric contact tracing.

Contact tracing as a concept is safe and effective—but, while digital innovations offer a potentially swift and effective solution for controlling the spread of COVID-19, at this point in the game, it’s unclear how safe such applications are concerning user privacy.

Right now, we’re in uncharted waters and as we continue our war against coronavirus, we may have to trust the technology and the privacy-preserving measures currently in place.

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