Governments bet on smartphone apps to help stanch pandemic
Canberra: As governments around the world consider how to monitor new coronavirus outbreaks while reopening their societies, many are starting to bet on smartphone apps to help stanch the pandemic.
But their decisions on which technologies to use — and how far those allow authorities to peer into private lives — are highlighting some uncomfortable tradeoffs between protecting privacy and public health.
“There are conflicting interests,” said Tina White, a Stanford University researcher who first introduced a privacy-protecting approach in February.
“Governments and public health (agencies) want to be able to track people” to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but people are less likely to download a voluntary app if it is intrusive, she said.
Containing infectious disease outbreaks boils down to a simple mantra: test, trace and isolate. Today, that means identifying people who test positive for the novel coronavirus, tracking down others they might have infected, and preventing further spread by quarantining everyone who might be contagious.
That second step requires an army of healthcare workers to question coronavirus carriers about recent contacts so those people can be tested and potentially isolated.
Smartphone apps potentially speed up that process by collecting data about your movements and alerting you if you’ve spent time near a confirmed coronavirus carrier.
The more detailed that data, the more it could help regional governments identify and contain emerging disease “hot spots.” But data collected by governments can also be abused by governments — or their private-sector partners.
Some countries and local governments are issuing voluntary government-designed apps that make information directly available to public health authorities. (AP)