Whenever there is a crisis, people often go to technology for “help”. It is what historians and cultural scholars describe as “technological optimism”. It means that technology evokes hopeful aspirations for people whenever they struggle with large issues and crises. So when physical communication is interrupted, virtual technology is thought of as a good alternative. Likewise, after it was established by scientists that coronavirus spreads via human contact, countries rushed to develop new or use existing technologies and data collection techniques to identify and track those who carry the disease and monitor whoever violates self-isolation or quarantine rules. These technologies have raised concern among different organizations about the probable impact of the tracking technologies on personal privacy, democracy, and human rights. A coalition of 110 human rights and civil society groups called on governments to respect human rights as they use surveillance technology to monitor COVID-19.
The use of these apps differs among countries, depending on their legal, political and legislative structures. However, many have eased restrictions around privacy protection and data collection to manage the disease. Here is a list of some apps and technologies used by different countries to “limit” the spread of COVID-10:
- Facebook: The company developed interactive maps to show the estimated percentage of people with COVID-19 symptoms (not the WHO’s confirmed cases). The company developed the maps through prompting users in the U.S. with a survey made by Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi epidemiological research center asking users to self-report COVID-19 symptoms.
- South Korea: The Korean government launched TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth signals to track the proximity and duration of contact with others. When someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, the government would use the app to identify other users who have been recently in contact with the patient.
- Australia: The Australian government has launched COVIDsafe, another app similar to TraceTogether in its function. It traces people using the app who have been in contact with someone else also using the app and has tested positive for coronavirus.
- China: AliPay is an online payment platform used widely in China. The government has run a health code service on the platform giving people different color codes. People given a green code are allowed to travel relatively freely. A yellow code indicates that the person should be in home isolation, and a red code indicates the user is a confirmed a COVID-19 patient and should be in quarantine. Some business such as restaurants and hotels ask customers to show their codes before entering.
- The European Union: The European Commission has urged the largest European telecom operators such as Vodafone to share data from across the region to map COVID-19. The measures make it possible for the Commission to access data and track the movement of people in the “hot zone” areas and whether they are complying with the restrictions in place.
- The United States: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has turned to data sold by advertising companies with access to GPS (such as e-commerce apps) for tracking purposes. While the data collected is anonymous, it is not aggregated. This means that it is possible to track the movement of one individual over a period of time.
- Israel: Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, were authorized by the prime minister to use cellphone location data to track the movements of people who tested positive for COVID-19 and identify people who have been in contact with them and should be quarantined.
Many of these above-mentioned apps have been announced as measures to ease lockdowns faster and quicken the reopening of businesses and the return to normal life. While they might seem as necessary or practical measures in a time when there is a contagious disease killing thousands of people, we should keep in mind that technologies cannot be merely judged by efficacy or productivity but also by the ways in which they might change authority and power. Their intended results are shortening lockdown periods, but they may have lasting and unintended consequences on personal privacy and political practices. Also, what is common about all these apps and practices is the separation between producers and consumers. The apps’ users are people while the transmitters are government and business bodies with no involvement from civil society actors and groups. This divide should make us more cautious about the future of these data tracking devices and their potential use in authoritarian and repressive settings.