As the total reported cases of coronavirus surpassed 1 million globally this week, tech companies – from Google to tiny startups – are going to the barricades to combat the spread of the disease. What proved to be actually working to contain the virus is tracking those who were infected, along with all their contacts and movements. But are those tracking apps aligned with basic privacy rules? And since the whole world has turned to online activities, how secure is virtual conferencing, and is pouring so much private data to the internet still safe?
Google releases global mobility reports
Google came up with what really looks like “helping public health officials combat COVID-19”: the tech giant uses the data that is collected from location history of its users worldwide, “aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded.”
“We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.” The reports consist of per country, or per state, downloads (with 131 countries covered initially), further broken down into regions.
Privacy experts and civil liberties campaigners have rushed to voice concerns about the impacts of such data-fueled efforts on individual rights, and the issue of legal consent to be tracking people in the first place.
EU sees you
Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which records the recent history o smartphone’s contacts on a device, is claimed to be one of the main reasons for the city to manage to contain the spread of coronavirus so quickly and efficiently. Therefore, European countries, now hit by a severe outbreak of the disease, are rapidly looking to launch similar apps, which, however, should not turn into surveillance and violate privacy laws – a somewhat tech/ethic dilemma.
A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified. A similar project is underway in the UK.
The European Commission called on telecom companies to share aggregate location data on their users with governments, to pick up Singapore’s example and start tracking those infected.
Mainstream adoption leads to unforeseen consequences. Zoom’s daily users rocketed to more than 200 million in March (from a previous maximum level of 10 million). However, the app is being criticized over privacy concerns. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Boston office even issued a warning about Zoom, telling users not to make meetings on the site public or share links widely after it received two reports of unidentified individuals invading school sessions, a phenomenon known as “zoom-bombing.”
Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has banned its employees from using Zoom, citing “significant privacy and security concerns.”
Notably, after Zoom CEO apologised for security lapses and said that the company would freeze future development, Zoom stock fell as much as 16%.