Why data protection and privacy rights have become part of the fight against COVID-19

13 May 2020 11:44 am by Mark Dunn

Amid the current global COVID-19 outbreak, leaders around the world are keen to reopen their societies to relieve economic pressure. At the same time, countries remain cautious to mitigate a serious second wave of Coronavirus infections due to the retraction of social distancing measures.

European decision makers have sought to keep the novel virus at bay by using mobile phone tracking technology, but not without concerns from data-protection activists and citizens who have been increasingly aware of their privacy rights. While, indeed, the use of data can help us tackle this global pandemic, any potential use of personal data must fully consider the potential risks of Corona-tracking apps and what do virus-tracing technologies look like in different countries?

coronavirus tracking apps

The State of the App

While several countries are in the early phase of developing practical apps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Austria’s approach has stunned many of its European partners. In cooperation with the Federal Government, the Austrian Red Cross has developed the Stop Corona-App which intends to interrupt the chain of coronavirus infections as fast as possible. Contrary to earlier trends of utilizing anonymised GPS data to evaluate public measures, this app uses a decentralised system, where potential infections are traced through Bluetooth technology. Data protection advocates have increasingly voiced concerns over the dangers of centralised databases for such issues.

Unsurprisingly, the global approach to Corona-tracing technology has been diverse and multifaceted. While countries such as Israel, South Korea or China have extended their use of digital surveillance to follow the virus, most member states of the European Union have been cautious to yield their position as a global shepherd of data-protection and privacy related issues.

While Germany, the Netherlands and France are also using Bluetooth-based approaches, Poland introduced legal requirements for COVID-19 patients to download a tracking app and upload selfies from home to determine if people are abiding the regulations. Asked by the The Washington Post, Diego Naranjo, a digital privacy advocate from the European Digital Rights organization, emphasized caution over such actions, even when implemented with good intentions.

Mitigating privacy concerns

To prevent potential data protection and privacy concerns, officials in Austria have settled for a proactive approach instead. The small alpine state, which was one of the first countries to loosen public coronavirus restrictions in April, has received excellent feedback in a data-protection audit, published by noyb, a European non-profit organisation focusing on data and privacy related matters. According to Max Schrems, managing director of noyb, the Stop Corona App could be deployed to other countries as well, particularly because early concerns have been identified and fixed and a decentralized operating system (DP-3T) has been implemented.

Still, the public seems hesitant over the use of such apps. At just over 500,000 downloads, the Stop Corona-App’s impact might be fractional. A report published by researchers at the University of Oxford, finds that while digital contact-tracing tools can slow the spread of COVID-19 with relatively small user groups, controlling it requires at least 60% participation rate among the population.

Data needs transparent governance

Today, it seems difficult to predict where this pandemic is headed and how our lives are going to be further influenced by COVID-19. Measures that have been implemented to prevent the exponential growth of this virus have saved countless lives around the world. Now, the fast-developing impact of data-based virus-tracking solutions are met with great enthusiasm by most officials. However, governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations must consider the wider impact these measures could potentially have on our society by also establishing rigorous transparency regulations that will help citizens to gain trust in these measures.

Take the next steps:

  1. Explore how COVID-19 is affecting the global risk landscape with our Covid-19 risk tracker.
  2. Download our whitepaper on why companies must consider Fairness, Ethics, Accountability and Transparency when implementing big data and AI solutions.