The year Mickey Mouse caught COVID-19?
As contact tracing apps rely heavily on user-inputted data, how can we ensure the accuracy of the results… and stop the disease spreading?
How many times have you given a false name when booking at a restaurant, or answering a feedback survey? Or used an easier spelling to make the reservation process go more smoothly? Whether for convenience, japes or – more likely – privacy concerns, it’s not always possible to confirm that the information given to a business (like a restaurant or bar) is accurate.
Enter COVID-19, and every establishment you enter is asking for a name and phone number to help trace (and stop) the spread of the virus, or is offering some ‘simple’ way to send your details back to track and trace teams. Will people stop the practice of giving false identities? Will everyone participate?
Dinner with Don Draper
Australia has already reported a number of people entering names like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on contact tracing forms, making it harder to spot and control outbreaks. And while names like these (and addresses like Buckingham Palace) are manifestly false, it won’t always be obvious who is making things up.
In new legislation hurried through parliament, the UK government has said if you enter the name of an enemy instead of your own, you could be fined £1000. Fines can be handed out for “falsely stating … that someone is a close contact of a person who has tested positive for coronavirus”: in other words, you can’t force someone you don’t like into self-isolation.
There are legitimate concerns
We know that privacy concerns have been front of mind for the UK public, especially over the last few years. It would be unsurprising if a significant minority of people decided to opt out of handing over their personal data, whether through writing it on a paper form or scanning a QR code that, eventually, gives the government a clear picture of where they have been.
How do we address them?
It’s possible to trace the spread of a disease without tracing people, suggests Moai creator Bertrand Foing. With an app that enables the processing of highly sensitive data on the cloud, using secure hardware, Moai keeps the limited data it collects completely encrypted - ensuring total privacy. The app also doesn’t require users to input any details (of their contacts, or enemies.)
“We believe individuals and companies should always be in control of their data,” says Foing. “We have built a new generation of web services, enforcing consent, and guaranteeing privacy by design and by default.”
How privacy tech can help beat COVID-19
As various approaches are proposed and tested for tracing the spread of the virus, how can we lower risks without demolishing privacy?
COVID-19 has led to 978,369 deaths globally, and the hospitalisation and intensive care of many more. The effects of this virus are far-reaching, and it is a major public health crisis.
As scientists scramble to learn more about, and create vaccines to prevent, COVID-19, contact tracing is one of the measures deployed by governments globally to reduce transmission rates. This means identifying and following up with those who have been exposed to the disease, asking them to take additional precautions to prevent further transmission.
4 in 10 people are worried about contact tracing
Contact tracing can only be successful with mass adoption: privacy fears could represent a roadblock in that respect. According to Kantar research from June, 4 in 10 people in the UK say they would be fairly or very unlikely to use the planned NHS contact tracing app:
- 49% are concerned about privacy
- 35% don’t want the government to track their location
- 29% don’t think the app will help to slow the spread of coronavirus
Latest figures for the new UK contact tracing app suggest 10 million people, or 17% of the population, have taken the plunge. Privacy concerns (and incompatible technology) could be a barrier.
Is collecting personal data really necessary?
Understanding where people have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus, and informing them of this, does not have to involve taking or storing identifying information. The Moai solution lets you trace your exposure without ever asking who you are; businesses generate unique QR codes without providing any location information.
This isn’t just about a more efficient way to collect data. This is about respecting that people do not want companies, apps, or a government, to know where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. And if people feel they are being watched, they are less likely to use contact tracing technology. Without adoption, the effectiveness of contact tracing rapidly declines.
Supporting anonymised research
Another challenge with contact tracing lies in keeping personal data secure while being able to carry out crucial research to better understand how the disease spreads. Some approaches to secure contact tracing mean that the data cannot be analysed by researchers. Moai encrypts data at all times using secure hardware and privacy-preserving algorithms; the technology allows academic research to be undertaken on the data, without any personal information being exposed.