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COVID-19 tracing app raises privacy and access concerns

Will the government's CuidAR app be effective, private or neither?

By | [email protected] | June 10, 2020 12:29pm


Just like it happened in other countries with similar proposals, the creation of an app to track people that could be infected with the novel coronavirus is creating controversy in Argentina. The debate in the country was heightened because the CuidAR app (which had 1.3 million downloads before its recent re-launch) will now need to be used to apply for a transit permit, turning an app whose use was completely discretionary into almost fully mandatory.

All western countries that turned to mobile technology for help with the pandemic saw the inevitable emergence of debates about privacy and the State’s use of personal information. This brought forward a divide between those who refuse to reveal certain information (health, contacts, location) to the State, and those who were willing to do so for the common good.

Private privacy and public privacy

The latter usually question those who show skepticism, saying that they are not as jealous of their privacy when they offer just as much or even more information to platforms like Google, Facebook and many others, including banks and credit card companies. These firms make use of that information, plus additional data created while using their platforms, as an invaluable resource for commercial and marketing purposes. So why does giving away all this personal information not generate the same amount of resistance than this case?

But there’s a significant difference between handing that information to the state or doing so to private companies, mainly the fact that the state has a coercive power over the population which corporations do not.

A company might want to sell (or maybe stop selling) us something, but the individual has agreed to give up his personal information, knowingly or not. In exchange, that person gets communication services, entertainment and other features, not freely (because it is giving something in exchange) but at least without paying money for it. Still, even taking all these factors into consideration, new limits and regulations are being imposed every day on how this information can be recollected and used by private firms.

The state can have even more influence in personal life, including limiting a person’s physical movement. In this case, it can establish restrictions, limits and parameters to their everyday mobility. It can even sanction the violation of these limits imposing economic sanctions such as fines, some of which could be derived from false positives. And although some of the data provided to the CuidAR app is public (name, ID number), another portion of it is confidential and highly sensitive, such as personal health data, which clearly belongs in the private sphere.

Practical problems

But beyond these philosophical aspects to mandating the use of apps, there are more practical questions in place that show the weaknesses of the idea. Even putting aside the technical limitations that some specialists have discussed, the fact that the app has a mere 2.6 out of 5 rating in Google Play suggests there is likely a lot left to be desired.

Technical issues can be corrected, but for the app to be useful it will need to breach a threshold of public acceptance and use, otherwise it won’t be helpful in the fight against the pandemic. Many cell phone users in Argentina do not have the hardware or software required to make it work, and find that insufficient storage capacity or not having a modern enough operating system makes installing the app impossible. Others simply do not accept using the app even if the state formally demands it.

This is a relevant issue because epidemiologists estimate that tracking apps are useful if at least 60 percent of the population utilize then. In the case of Argentina, data from the Permanent Households Survey (EPH) says 84 percent of its people use a cell phone, which does not necessarily mean that they have one of their own. Among the most at-risk population, those above 65 years of age, this figure falls to 68 percent, and plummets even further to 48 percent with regards to internet use, be it from a computer, a cell phone or a tablet. This means that many of the cell phones they might have available will not have the technology to install the CuidAR app.


Cell phone and internet use in Argentina

Introducing novelty

With some local variance, this discussion is taking place in all western countries. The questions are similar and there is generally no agreement on whether these apps should exist and how they should work.

In any case, one has to be realistic in terms of expectations, not losing sight of the fact that tracking apps are only one more tool that is available for the fight against the pandemic, but which hasn’t yet been proven as important or effective as social distancing, hygiene, testing and individual responsibility. Even more important will be how the lifting of the lockdown is organized, with regards to the use of public transport, the return to workplaces and schools in the context of the pandemic.

The urgency of the pandemic might lead to experimenting with new tools to prop up public health, such as the large-scale surveillance that apps could theoretically allow. But this should be done with similar caution than when a new drug is introduced to treat an ailment, or else we’ll then have to deal with unpleasant collateral damage. In the end, these tools will also end up having an impact on public health.