The ethics of tracking apps: Is mass surveillance the new normal?

Will the Covid-19 pandemic normalise mass surveillance and tracking apps?

Tracking apps aren't a new phenomenon, we are all accustomed to some level of surveillance over our activities; whether that's Google Maps tracking our travels to try and find the right street corner, or using social media features like Snapchat's Snap Map to track down a friend's location. There is an overall understanding that if we grant access to our location, we are allowing companies to track our movements. The second understanding is that we are less comfortable with this data being in the hands of government authorities. But that might be about to change.

The current pandemic is changing public perception of tracking technology as some countries have found relative success in its use to help contain the Covid-19 virus. Yet, as we look to the apparent successes of these data tracking models and admit the practicality of this technology, where do we draw the line over who is responsible for this technology and data? How can we be certain it will only be used for ‘good' and ‘ethical' reasons?


Tracing technology during Covid-19 and beyond

During the Covid-19 pandemic, tracking apps are gaining significant attention as a solution to monitor and contain the spread of infection and ease us out of a lockdown. How do these apps work? Paul Bischoff, Privacy Advocate at Comparitech, explains they "collect information from users about who they have been in contact with over the preceding days or weeks. Sometimes this is done through an interview or questionnaire."

All of this data, collected either through Bluetooth or GPS, is then analysed so the app can notify users to self-isolate if they have encountered a person displaying symptoms or with someone who has tested positive. Since the start of the pandemic, a whole host of countries and companies have created their own version. Leading the pack were tech-heavyweights Apple and Google, as they revealed plans for a joint tracing tool, while the UK's NHS app, NHSX, is being trialled on the Isle of Wight.

In terms of how effective these technologies are in dealing with the coronavirus, Taiwan and South Korea may have the answer. South Korea's app has been downloaded more than 1 million times since its launch in February and has been successful in tracing infected citizens and enforcing quarantine. Taiwan, on the other hand, not only employed mobile phone tracking but created protean network databases for the whole country to better manage resources. The success of both countries in keeping their rate of infection under control was due to a combination of surveillance and tracing tactics along with mass testing.  

Privacy concerns aside, tracking apps have a number of potential benefits. By correctly tracing and quarantining citizens, governments can reduce the strain on the healthcare industry and better manage resources. Richard Baker, CEO at GeoSpock, explains that tracing app technology can improve resource management for businesses by giving early-warning impacts for supply chain disruptions or unavailability of crucial stock.

Baker also sees the potential for tracking technology in a post-pandemic society, as it can be used for different purposes, "understanding travel patterns, bottlenecks and densities can help to mitigate the effects of subsequent epidemics, while also optimising occupant efficiency. Smart cities rely upon datasets to make more informed, accurate and automated decisions."

The truth is, data tracking systems have been in place for some time now. We are no strangers to our information being stored, analysed or sold; and while there have been regulations introduced to protect our data, Covid-19 might just be the turning point on how we feel about surveillance. People may volunteer to opt in now but once the pandemic is potentially over, will we remember to opt out?


The reality of tracking and surveillance

At least 25 countries have implemented digital surveillance of its citizens to combat COVID-19, all with varying degrees of intrusion. Countries like the UK, South Korea, and Singapore have offered their app on a voluntary basis, while passengers landing in Hong Kong were mandated to download a tracing app to ensure self-isolation. Moscow is employing facial recognition technology and surveillance cameras to enforce lockdown, while India is collecting biometric information and releasing addresses of COVID-19 patients.

Alex Cruickshank noted the lack of conversation about the increasing infringement over civil liberty and the question of the long-term effects of mass surveillance systems, but many experts have raised concerns over the consequences of these tracking apps, and the difficulty in undoing this surveillance. Bischoff points out that businesses and governments can abuse the data for their own gains, and how surveillance can used to suppress freedoms of movement and assembly.

Once governments are granted such extensive access to personal information, it is unlikely they will want to give it up. Logan Finucan, Senior Manager of Data & Trust at Access Partnership points out that there is a "potential risk that law enforcement or surveillance authorities will seek to tap into such fonts of information, as has been the steady trend in counterterrorism surveillance for nearly two decades. Anticipating a potentially long tail in fending off the pandemic, the White House, for example, is developing plans for a new national surveillance system, incorporating private sector data."

The main concern over government access to this information is that it can be used beyond public health initiatives, theoretically for political purposes. Joseph Carson, Chief Security Scientist at Thycotic discusses how governments can potentially abuse this data for political changes, for example some "EU some countries have used COVID-19 to accelerate some legal changes such as modifications that mean non-EU citizens must return home if they lose their jobs."

And while there is a call for greater transparency over how responsible governments will be in a post-pandemic environment, the reality of tracking technology is that it is already being used unethically by businesses. Amazon has tracked and fired warehouse employees for failing to meet productivity quotas. Taking it a step further was Whole Foods, an Amazon owned company, who were reported to be using heat maps to track stores that were potentially unionising.

There is no question that tracking technology is here to stay and will continue to be implemented in a number of different iterations, from new social media features to employees being microchipped as a way to bypass key fobs and corporate log-ons. Technology will continue to find new ways to circumvent individual privacy, but this data will not always remain in the hands of trustworthy individuals. It is important to remember that governments can change, and CEOs can be replaced; but our personal data will still be available for their use.