angle-left Apps to contain the pandemic and save civil liberties
INNOVATION TUNGSTENO

Apps to contain the pandemic and save civil liberties

Covid-19 tracking apps make smartphones essential tools for controlling coronavirus outbreaks. This purpose has brought Apple and Google together for the first time to develop a global solution. Faced with the great challenge of the end of lockdown, governments are looking for an ally in new technologies.

The global API developed by Apple and Google uses bluetooth technology to track the spread of the pandemic. Credit: Gyorgy Barna.

 

ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno

All those countries that have opted for containment to halt the pandemic now face a major challenge: to gradually return to normality without triggering a surge in the number of people infected. While science remains ignorant of so many basic details about the novel coronavirus and the disease Covid-19, technology has become the great hope for achieving a successful reopening of society, but is also another reason for controversy and concern about what these innovations mean for the people’s right to freedom and privacy.

This is the path followed by some of the countries that have been most successful in containing the pandemic, with the creation of websites and apps to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2. In South Korea, the authorities share with citizens the movements of those infected and in the Play Store there are applications such as Corona Map or Corona 100m that show the location of people with Covid-19. In Singapore, the TraceTogether app is designed to locate possible sources of infection and warn citizens if they have been in contact with an infected person.

In China, meanwhile, an app called Suishenban generates coloured QR codes to identify whether a user may be infected because they have been in areas with a high rate of infection or even whether they should be quarantined. Its use is mandatory in Shanghai for any citizen who wants to access public services and many private ones.

For its part, Israel also wants to monitor at all times the movements of people infected by the coronavirus. Shin Bet, the internal espionage agency, announced its intention to use the secret mobile phone tracking technology normally used by Israeli espionage in the fight against terrorism to carry out surveillance. As a result, according to the newspaper Haaretz, the government can tap the mobile phones of any person who has tested positive for Covid-19, and of people who are suspected of having the disease, to check whether they are complying with the rules put in place to curb the epidemic.

Technologies such as the Vici robot, which allows medical attention without direct contact, are being implemented to contain the coronavirus. Credit: InTouch Health.

Apple and Google's contact tracing API

Following these initial government initiatives, the two largest tech companies (Apple and Google) have joined forces to provide a globally viable solution. Both companies intend to offer an API (a set of programming tools) to governments to develop their own apps or incorporate some already created ones. In fact, they have already published the first beta version of this API so that certain developers can start working on it. This beta includes a button for the user to choose whether or not to participate in Covid-19 exposure notifications.

In other words, neither Google nor Apple will be in charge of developing the final apps. Each country will create its model from tools created by these companies. The objective of both is to launch a provisional platform in May and to make the global idea available in the coming months. It will be activated on mobile phones through a minor update of the operating system (iOS or Android), which will ask the user for authorization to automatically install the corresponding app developed by their national public health authority.

These applications will work with bluetooth technology, and the idea is that they will be constantly recording close contacts between users who have this system activated. So, when someone is diagnosed with Covid-19 and decides to notify the system, the people they have been in contact with will be notified on their phones that they may have been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The user can turn their infection tracking system on or off at any time. To ensure privacy, the keys that mobiles create and share with one another will be generated randomly. In addition, the data communicated by bluetooth during the connection between the mobiles will be encrypted to prevent third parties from reading them.

The question of user privacy

Both tech giants have opted for a decentralized system. This means that they will not collect any information that could personally identify anyone, nor any location data, and the data collected will not leave the smartphone. In other words, neither Apple nor Google nor other user will be able to know the identity of people who test positive for Covid-19 and report it. By way of contrast, in a centralized system the data are kept on the servers of the various health authorities. Europe is divided between countries that have chosen the first option and those that prefer the second. Spain has not yet positioned itself, and while Germany has decided on the Apple and Google system, the United Kingdom will opt for the other alternative. There, user data will be managed by the British national health system (NHS).

While Apple and Google are committed to respecting user privacy, this initiative may raise concerns about individual freedoms, even taking into account the argument made by many experts that the crisis generated by the coronavirus permits an exceptional use of data. In fact, Article 9.2i) of the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation provides for the possibility of processing personal data when "necessary for reasons of public interest in the area of public health, such as protection against serious cross-border threats to health".

Many details as to how these apps will work in Europe are not yet known. Everything suggests that the final outcome will depend on how intrusive governments want to be in controlling potential outbreaks. In Spain, some 60 lawyers, philosophers, academics and privacy experts signed a letter of support for the government in the use of technology that affects personal data in March, prior to the agreement between Google and Apple. This is provided that privacy is always respected and the data is deleted or only reused for scientific research once the pandemic is over.

At Guangdong Provincial People's Hospital, robots have been used to deliver drugs to patients. Credit: CGTN.

Robots, virtual assistants and big data

Apart from apps to track the coronavirus, different technologies have been used in recent weeks in the fight to contain the spread of the outbreak. From the beginning, robots have been especially useful in containing the pandemic in some countries. In Washington, health care workers at Everett Regional Medical Center have used a robot to communicate with some patients and take their temperatures. At China's Guangdong Provincial People's Hospital, stand-alone machines have delivered drugs to patients, according to Chinese public television station CGTN. Even in some hotels in China, this type of robot has taken food to people in quarantine.

In Spain, the government and several communities have explored the potential of different technologies. For example, the Community of Madrid has launched an app to examine users' health issues related to the coronavirus. It is not a self-diagnostic tool, but recommends what steps to take on a personalised basis. The national government has also launched a wizard on WhatsApp to answer questions from the public about the coronavirus. The aim of these projects is to free up emergency phone lines.

Initiatives have also been launched to seek solutions to the pandemic. An example of this is Data for Hope, whose opening event on 15 April brought together entrepreneurs with data experts, doctors, researchers and public institutions to develop prediction and growth models for the pandemic and to find ways to curb its spread in Africa and Latin America. Another such initiative is the Virtual Hackathon “Vence al Virus” (Beat the Virus) held in the Community of Madrid, with some 7,400 participants from 49 countries presenting more than 244 projects. Among the finalists were a digital funeral wake that allows family members to share condolences, a decontamination project to reduce the viral load in the air circulating inside hospitals and residences, and an "electronic nose" to detect whether a person has Covid-19.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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