COVID Detection Apps: Problems and Challenges

July 16, 2020
COVID Detection Apps

Public health experts across the globe have been working non-stop to make antibodies and medications that can stop the COVID-19 pandemic or if nothing else help end its spread. Since a large number of the population already owns a Smartphone, amidst these endeavors, they have proved quite useful, as these offer an effective solution to contact tracing. COVID detection apps are an unprecedented societal response to the outbreak of the virus in question, however, these apps have raised some difficult questions pertaining to efficacy, privacy, and responsible engineering. Furthermore, it can be argued that regardless of how well these have been designed or how effective such detection apps can prove; it won’t help resolve gaps in the healthcare sector. To understand the impact of these apps, it is imperative to know the difference between Covid-19 applications being used: firstly, there are those that help trace movement, and then there are apps that collect information for scientists and the latest ones that offer alerts on proximity to COVID-19 patients.

Civil liberties

COVID-19 is a global crisis that has affected millions of people around the world; while that is true, there is, however, another issue that is equally pressing – the sacrifice of civil liberties. While these sophisticated proximity tracking apps may help in the short-term, legal, and policy limits need to be set. The choice to use them should remain with the individual user, who should be aware of the risks and limitations involved.

Accuracy

One of the critical challenges with corona detection apps is testing accuracy. Where having an app that links to the national health system to monitor the virus is a starting point, but does it offer accurate results? An app that offers you to simply tick boxes for every symptom and then urges everyone around any potentially infected individual to go into self-isolation does not offer a feasible solution. Only a formal test can provide valid results after which alerting those the infected person in question had been near to, would be construed as more pragmatic.

Moreover, contact tracing apps can’t guarantee that the entire vicinity is corona-free if there are no patients being shown on the system. Contact tracing is a public health intervention and offers limited individual benefits. What does the user get in return for the information provided and the potential possibility of being locked in or quarantined? Not much really.

Location tracking, utilizing GPS, and cell site information is not apt for contact tracing because it doesn’t reflect close physical interactions responsible for COVID-19 transmission. Proximity tracing uses Bluetooth signal strength to create proximity logs that help determine the likelihood of users contracting the virus by coming in close contact with an already infected person. While testing of such an app has revealed substantial problems, such as failure to estimate distance accurately and reliance on operating systems of iPhone and power drain issues.

User behavior

While the number of smartphone users does not reflect the entire population, there are other things that need to be considered when gauging the reliability of detection apps to combat the virus. For instance, if we look at the percentage of older citizens with a capable smartphone, it is very small. And while they may be more responsible, the younger population with more advanced phones is far less likely to install a detection app. They are even less likely to get tested if they suffer mild symptoms, given fewer health concerns.

Privacy

Most apps enable users to provide informed consent before sharing their data, for instance, Singapore’s TraceTogether app has a number of privacy safeguards; whereby the company does not collect or use geolocation data while saving data logs in an encrypted form. Similarly, to ensure the privacy of its users, the Pan-European app encrypts data and anonymizes personal information. Given that, the range of data collected and shared by these apps is beyond a common user’s understanding, in most cases, the app keeps running in the background even when the device is not in use. Additionally, some apps can exchange detailed information through application programming interfaces (APIs). While the World Health Organization (WHO) praised Korea’s extensive tracing measures, privacy issues related to the movement of infected persons were raised. A guideline that restricts the disclosure of such information was issued by the Korean government based on the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act passed in 2015.

Data theft

Most importantly, there is the risk of malicious use of the data, especially given the current climate of manipulation and disinformation. It could be done by a political operative who wants to improve their vote bank or a business looking to stifle competition. Data theft can even be undertaken by trolls and hackers who could use it for mere entertainment, as well as by foreign intelligence. This new solution has its own vulnerabilities that have not yet been exploited but remain present nonetheless.

Ensuring our safety in these uncertain times!

While practicing social distancing has become a norm, similarly avoiding digital risk should also be a priority. In an unfamiliar time, providing up-to-date information is important; while that is true, we must ensure users are safe from adversaries. Even though most mobile apps are legit, if they are not hosted on a trusted store, you should avoid downloading them. Users also need to stay vigilant when it comes to permissions that apps request. Access to sensitive data on your device can put you in a compromising situation, so it is better to avoid giving permissions where you feel they may not serve the purpose. A legitimate app developer will not mislead users and even though third-party apps should not be trusted, knowing exactly who you are working with is often quite helpful.