Authors: Andrew Crocker, Kert Opsahl, Bennett Cyphers | Electronic Frontier Foundation | Published 10 April 2020
Around the world, a diverse and growing chorus is calling for the use of smartphone proximity technology to fight COVID-19.
COVID-19 is a worldwide crisis, one which threatens to kill millions and upend society, but history has shown that exceptions to civil liberties protections made in a time of crisis often persist much longer than the crisis itself.
But it is not a given that smartphone tracking will solve this problem, and the risks it poses to individual privacy and civil liberties are considerable. Location tracking—using GPS and cell site information, for example—is not suited to contact tracing because it will not reliably reveal the close physical interactions that experts say are likely to spread the disease. Instead, developers are rapidly coalescing around applications for proximity tracing, which measures Bluetooth signal strength to determine whether two smartphones were close enough together for their users to transmit the virus. In this approach, if one of the users becomes infected, others whose proximity has been logged by the app could find out, self-quarantine, and seek testing.
Contact tracing applications cannot make up for shortages of effective treatment, personal protective equipment, and rapid testing, among other challenges.
As part of the nearly unprecedented societal response to COVID-19, such apps raise difficult questions about privacy, efficacy, and responsible engineering of technology to advance public health. Above all, we should not trust any application—no matter how well-designed—to solve this crisis or answer all of these questions.
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