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Coronavirus information
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Last week, Apple and Google announced a plan to use smartphones – two people seen here on April 11, 2020 in Beijing on their phones – to detect how often people were coming within a close enough distance of other people to spread the virus.

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

As governments around the world focus on reopening their economies, many are considering mobile-phone tracking to help slow the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent a new wave of infections.

But privacy advocates warn that efforts to partner with the technology industry to harness troves of smartphone data threaten to undermine civil liberties.

Inspired by the success of countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – which limited their outbreaks and avoided lockdowns with the help of location-tracking apps – Western governments are looking to Silicon Valley for similar solutions. The hope is that digital tracking can be a stopgap measure that allows countries to loosen lockdown restrictions while they scale up testing capabilities and await a vaccine.

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Last week, Apple and Alphabet’s Google announced a plan to use smartphones to detect how often people were coming within a close enough distance of other people to spread the virus. The proposal could pave the way to automate contact tracing – the practice of identifying people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and then notifying anyone who has come into close contact with them.

Digital contact tracing promises to be much faster than traditional methods, which require large numbers of public-health employees to manually track down a patient’s contacts. It could also help identify people who have unknowingly been close to an infected person, such as grocery store clerks or passengers on public transit.

“The benefit of an app like this is that clearly it can work better than a whole bunch of people thrown at the problem,” said McGill University Professor David Buckeridge, director of the school’s Surveillance Lab, which applies computer science technology to public-health problems.

The tech giants’ plan uses Bluetooth signals to detect phones that have come within two metres of each other. If someone tests positive, they could share their phone’s data with apps run by public-health authorities. Those apps could then notify others if their phone showed they had been in contact with an infected person.

Officials with the two tech firms said that phones would exchange only anonymized random numbers to identify individual devices and would not share personal information or location details. Those ID numbers would be stored on the phones themselves rather than in servers run by governments or tech firms.

Privacy experts say the technology is more palatable than practices used by countries such as South Korea or China, which have required returning travellers or residents under quarantine to install smartphone apps that track their movements using GPS or cell-tower data.

Coronavirus guide: Updates and essential resources about the COVID-19 pandemic

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

What are the coronavirus rules in my province? A quick guide to what’s allowed and open, or closed and banned

But they warned that the enthusiasm for using smartphone data to deal with a public-health crisis could still threaten privacy at a time when people may be more willing to give up their civil rights to stop the spread of a deadly virus.

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“We think systems like this are playing with privacy fire in that they’re making a record of who we have been proximate to as we go about our days,” said Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital-rights group.

Lawmakers in Europe and the U.S. have expressed concerns about the privacy implications of the Apple-Google proposal. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada last week released guidelines for how public officials could use big data to tackle the pandemic while preserving privacy. The recommendations include collecting data only for a limited period of time; destroying it after it’s no longer needed; and taking into account how requesting sensitive personal data affects vulnerable populations.

“These are exceptional times and it’s understandable that governments will want to take extraordinary measures for public health and safety reasons,” said Brian Beamish, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. The Apple-Google solution appeared to offer promising safeguards such as encrypting data and requiring users to opt in, Mr. Beamish said. But he also wants the companies to offer greater assurances that they will stop using the technology once the pandemic ends.

How smartphone contact

tracing works

Governments and tech companies are turning

to mobile phone data to help slow outbreaks

of COVID-19. Several plan to use Bluetooth

technology on smartphones to detect when

two people have been close enough contact

to spread the virus. Apps would then send

alerts to people who have been in close prox

imity to someone who has tested positive.

Lisa is infected

with COVID-19

but doesn’t know

it yet. She goes

to work and sits

within six feet

Stephanie.

Lisa

Using the strength of the Bluetooth

signal, Lisa and Stephanie’s phones

detect that they are close together. The

phones send each other a string of

random numbers and letters known as a

unique identifier or “key.”

Key

Workplace

Stephanie

They both go

home for the day.

Lisa starts feeling sick. Test results

confirm she has COVID-19

Testing

Lisa tells the app on her

phone that she has tested

positive.

Stephanie opens the app. It compares

lists of keys of people who have report

ed positive results to a log of keys stores

on her phone. It finds Lisa’s key.

Alert

The app alerts Stephanie that she has

recently been in close contact with some

one who has tested positive and suggests

she get tested and self-quarantine.

Testing

Self-quarantine

tamsin mcMahon and JOHN SOPINSKI/

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google

How smartphone contact tracing works

Governments and tech companies are turning to mobile

phone data to help slow outbreaks of COVID-19. Several

plan to use Bluetooth technology on smartphones to

detect when two people have been close enough contact

to spread the virus. Apps would then send alerts to

people who have been in close proximity to someone

who has tested positive.

Lisa is infected with

COVID-19 but

doesn’t know it yet.

She goes to work

and sits within six

feet Stephanie.

Lisa

Using the strength of the Bluetooth signal, Lisa

and Stephanie’s phones detect that they are

close together. The phones send each other a

string of random numbers and letters known

as a unique identifier or “key.”

Key

Workplace

Stephanie

They both go home

for the day.

Lisa starts feeling sick. Test results

confirm she has COVID-19

Testing

Lisa tells the app on her phone

that she has tested positive.

Stephanie opens the app. It compares lists

of keys of people who have reported

positive results to a log of keys stores on

her phone. It finds Lisa’s key.

Alert

The app alerts Stephanie that she has

recently been in close contact with some

one who has tested positive and suggests

she get tested and self-quarantine.

Testing

Self-quarantine

tamsin mcMahon and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google

How smartphone contact tracing works

Governments and tech companies are turning to mobile phone data to help slow outbreaks

of COVID-19. Several plan to use Bluetooth technology on smartphones to detect when two

people have been close enough contact to spread the virus. Apps would then send alerts

to people who have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive.

Using the strength of the Bluetooth signal, Lisa and

Stephanie’s phones detect that they are close

together. The phones send each other a string of

random numbers and letters known as a unique

identifier or “key.”

Lisa is infect-

ed with

COVID-19 but

doesn’t know

it yet. She

goes to work

and sits

within six feet

Stephanie.

Lisa

Key

Workplace

They both go

home for the day.

Stephanie

Lisa tells the app on

her phone that she has

tested positive.

Lisa starts feeling

sick. Test results

confirm she has

COVID-19

Testing

Self-quarantine

The app alerts

Stephanie that

she has recent-

ly been in close

contact with

someone who

has tested posi-

tive and sug-

gests she

get tested and

self-quarantine.

Alert

Stephanie opens the

app. It compares lists

of keys of people who

have reported positive

results to a log of keys

stores on her phone.

It finds Lisa’s key.

tamsin mcMahon and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: Apple Inc; Alphabet Inc.’s Google

Privacy experts warn that even relatively anonymous Bluetooth data might still reveal sensitive personal information, such as whether someone visited a psychiatrist or attended a protest.

Any app would still need to ask users to provide enough personal details so health officials could follow up directly with those affected, Prof. Buckeridge said. “There's really no way around that. But it can be done in a way where the minimal amount of information is communicated.”

Those who champion the use of smartphone tracking often ignore that the countries that successfully curbed their pandemics used smartphone apps alongside rigorous testing and aggressive physical-distancing measures, said law professor Ryan Calo, co-director of the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab. “They did a bunch of things that you don’t need coders at Apple and Google to do.”

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Some also warn that the technology may not even be useful enough to justify the privacy tradeoffs. “Any app that uses Bluetooth has to essentially be running all the time on your phone,” said Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, a British charity that has tracked how governments are using electronic surveillance technology to tackle the pandemic. “This will affect your battery, your security and the functionality of your phone.”

The technology also requires widespread testing to be available. And it’s unclear whether enough people will even be willing to use a contact-tracing app. A poll last week by the Pew Research Center found that 62 per cent of Americans don’t believe that tracking people through their phones would limit the spread of the disease.

The biggest drawbacks to digital contact tracing may not be privacy risks, but that the data collected aren’t accurate enough to be useful – particularly if few people are willing to install the apps on their phones, said Joseph Jerome, a policy director with U.S. technology non-profit Common Sense Media. “I think probably the worst-case scenario is that [the technology] doesn’t work and people sort of forget that it ever happened.”

With a report from Colin Freeze

Now that it is recommended you wear a face covering in dense public settings like grocery stores and pharmacies, watch how to make the three masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Written instructions available at tgam.ca/masks The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

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