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.  

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