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Tracking apps, at first we all thought it is a good idea to have them simply because it provides a sense of safety to know where your loved ones are. Then came Covid 19 and the entire picture is turned upside down.

Today mobile apps are employed to track the spread of Covid 19 in order to try and contain the outbreak. At first, this is sounding all good and well, but at what cost? What about your privacy?

According to Professor Masooda Bashir along with Tanusree Sharma, a doctoral student, both attached to information sciences at the University of Illinois, most of these apps require personal data and privacy protection information. They studied fifty Covid related apps that are found on the Google Play Store platform. The study was aimed at access to a user’s private data and how it is protected.

They both concluded that the majority of these apps do not indicate that the data will be anonymous, secured, or encrypted. The concern they raised was that these Covid 19 tracking apps are constantly collecting and processing extremely sensitive data relating to personal identification. This information includes data such as health, location, and data that can directly identify an individual by means of a persons’ name, voter or national identification status, email address, age, travel paths, social networks, and much more otherwise sensitive personal information.

Out of the 50 Covid 19 tracking apps, 30 of them requested permission from the user to access data. This is the usual files, camera, device ID, photos, contacts, location data, media, WiFi connection, network access, microphone, and call information, Google configurations, and the power to make changes to a network’s audio and connectivity settings.

A number of these tracking apps stated that they will obtain information such as the phone number, email address, device location postal code, mobile IP address, unique identifiers, and operating system, type of browsers used, and of course the age of the user.

Only 32% of these Covid 19 tracking apps that was studied, stated that the data will be encrypted, anonymous, secured an only be reported in an aggregated form.

Of the 50 tracking apps related to Covid 19 that was sampled, 40% of them were issued by official sources such as governments and health ministries. However, there is uncertainty whether the data that is collected is protected by legislation. Europe does have a structured privacy framework intact, but the US currently does not have it, according to these researchers.

What is a COVID 19 Tracking App?

COVID 19 Tracking App PrivacyThe purpose of Covid 19 tracking apps is to identify and inform people who have been in contact with a possible Covid 19 positive or risk carrier. All over the world many renowned technological firms and health authorities became involved to build these Covid 19 tracking apps. Regardless of the initial good intentions, a multitude of users are doubting these apps for the simple reason that they are not sure with whom the data is shared, and the manner in which and what kind of data is collected.

All participants, developers, researchers, or end-users all agree that the success of these Covid 19 tracking apps depends on the participation of users. Failure to overcome possible security and privacy risks will or are compromising participation.

How Are Tracking Apps Impacting You?

Various organizations and unions provided reports that exclaim the risks relating to security and privacy risks that should be considered during the development of these types of applications. One of the main concerns is the geo-location tracking in real-time. Alternatively, there is the risk that most individuals are not aware of or understand the wide ranging implications of the information they allow an app to obtain. Other people are concerned about the possibility that third parties can obtain access to their movement and private actions without much effort. Moreover, once the pandemic is under control, there is no guarantee that data collection will end and will be used for unfounded general surveillance of civilians.

One can not dispute that technology is beneficial to public health amidst the Covid 19 pandemic, however, the privacy risk and concerns are real and reason to be questioned.

Ways to Limit Risk

There are some steps one can take in order to protect your digital information, especially in a world where people are bewildered by doubtfulness.

Firstly, before you simply download a Covid 19 tracking app, make sure you read and fully understand the terms and conditions and make sure you actually do read the privacy policy and terms of service. This is a way to ensure you know exactly what information you will be sharing.

Another way to secure your information sharing is to check the settings of an app. You can do this by scrutinizing the permissions you allow the app to have access to. You can either change the settings or delete the application from your device.

Alternatively, you can consider making use of other options such as local government websites to monitor the spread of the Covid 19 virus in your specific area. In order to protect yourself and your loved ones, the key is to remain updated about the Covid 19 virus as well as the possible digital information security threats.

Apart from digital contact tracking, another way is to make use of people who go into communities to search for Covid 19 positive cases. Obviously, this is a challenge in its own right. It is labor-intensive and requires a lot of funding, and it increases the infection risk because it requires humans to come in contact with humans. Above all, it will never be able to obtain an equal amount of data that digital tracking does at the same time.

Covid 19 tracking apps are plenty, and many ideas on digital tracking are available, each with its own approaches and advantages. Yet, your privacy remains paramount and regardless of the reason or benefits, all of them remain tracking apps.

Any Covid 19 tracking app and the data it collects should only be used for current public health research. Ethically it should provide the user with a specified duration and under what legislation the user is protected as well as what method is used to collect data, for example, if data is location or people orientated.

Sources:

https://theconversation.com/unpacking-the-legal-and-ethical-aspects-of-south-africas-covid-19-track-and-trace-app-147137

https://www.africaportal.org/features/covid-19-geolocation-tracking-concerns-privacy-data/

https://www.mcafee.com/blogs/consumer/consumer-threat-notices/how-to-protect-your-privacy-from-tracking-apps/

https://spectrum.ieee.org/telecom/security/tracking-covid19-with-the-iot-may-put-your-privacy-at-risk

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200608192334.htm

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