Opinions, Tech

COVID contact tracing – our saving grace or an invasion of privacy?

You decide.

words by: Sahar Khraibani
May 2, 2020

You’ve probably been hearing this term quite a lot recently: contact tracing. From news outlets to Apple’s daily email blasts, more and more it seems to be governing our reality. But what is contact tracing, who does it, and how much do we need to worry about it?

One question is sure to be on the minds of many: is the surveillance state helping us or subjecting us to more captivity – what’s lost when we succumb to being watched and traced at all times?

Contact tracing is the act of tracing who you’ve come in contact with in order to prevent the spread of the virus by proactively finding people at higher risk than others due to potential exposure, notifying them if possible, and quarantining them if necessary. This method has been implemented in some form or another for as long as the medical establishment has understood the nature of contagious diseases.

When a person is diagnosed with an infectious disease, they are asked whom they have been in contact with over the previous weeks, both in order to determine who may have been infected by them and perhaps where they themselves were infected. This technique is a proven one, and one that could’ve potentially saved us months ago had it been implemented the right and prompt way. But recent talks have been centered on how smartphones could help make this technique even more effective. The only thing that needs to be overcome is privacy.

It seems to be framed as a “small price to pay,” and perhaps it may be, but what will we lose in the process of living under hyper surveillance? 

What’s lost when we succumb to being watched and traced at all times?

* * *

Apple and Google have announced their collaboration, and will be releasing a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform in the coming months. They will do so by building it into underlying platforms. Though the statement informs that “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze,” we are yet unsure of how this will affect everyone’s privacy, and what is really meant by “underlying platforms.” 

We’ve seen what kind of havoc our reliance on platforms such as Zoom wreaks, with the app’s frail security settings inviting unwanted breaches and viruses into our computers. It is one thing to have our computers be infiltrated, knowing that removing the app or taking some simple steps can protect our cyber safety, but it’s a completely different thing when we can’t really control it, when we give it permission ourselves. It’s one thing when an unscrupulous data algorithm uses your movements and interests to target you with ads without your knowledge or consent, but it is completely different when people choose to use the capabilities of everyday technology in an informed and limited way to turn the tide of a global pandemic, and potentially save humanity. That’s what modern digital contact tracing is supposedly intended to do.

It is clear now that the enormous digital surveillance apparatus that has been assembled around us over the last decade can for once use its nefarious hands to accomplish something positive that could be our saving grace. But how can we trust these intentions and characterize them as “pure?” Over the last few weeks, I couldn’t help but think about the effects of globalization and the incredible hold that technology has on us. Sci-fi novels whose ideas of people being tracked, having chips inserted in them, were once scandalous seem to be as present and ominous as ever. A lot of people like me have been a little torn about this news, going back and forth and recounting the pros and cons. The potential for abuse of such a system is incredibly worrisome, and the ability to track the exact movements and interactions of a person from their digital record is totally creepy.

The benefits, for now, seem to outweigh the risks: after all, we all want this to end and no one wants to be opposed to a seemingly effective solution. But we will have to wait and see how the corporations behind this will uphold their promise of openly and transparently sharing their findings, and how they plan to keep us safe while digitally holding us hostage, when this is a definite step and foray into our last bit of perceived freedom of movement.

In a state of hyper surveillance, what will our lives look like, and will we ever roam free again on this planet?