For many people, life during the COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by physical isolation, where our only social connections happen through a digital screen. Social distancing, wearing face coverings in public, and frequent sanitization are all public health measures that have been proven to effectively reduce the risk of spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 – at their root, they are also all means of limiting the physical traces we leave on one another.

Conversely, following one’s physical movements becomes a useful tool in tracking the spread of disease. This is formally practiced by public health organizations as contact tracing and is regularly used in the context of infectious diseases such as sexually transmitted diseases, and during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak. Contact tracing aims to identify close contacts who may have become infected and reach out to manage the risk of further transmission. With the shift of pandemic life from the physical to the digital, so too is contact tracing being adapted for the world of modern technology.

Digital Contact Tracing in Canada

In July 2020, the COVID Alert mobile application was officially released in Canada. COVID Alert uses Bluetooth technology on smartphones to notify other app users when they have been in close contact with someone who has self-reported a positive COVID-19 diagnosis through the app. COVID Alert’s Bluetooth-based proximity tracking method and decentralized data framework is designed to maximize user privacy by eliminating the collection of geolocation data and restricting access to personal user information.

In theory, digital contact tracing improves upon the issues of speed and labour associated with traditional manual methods through its rapid, contactless, and automated delivery. However, as of July 2021 less than 4% of total COVID-19 cases were caught on the COVID Alert app. A major contributor to the app’s poor uptake and usage are Canadians’
concerns over privacy. To utilize this technology to its full potential, the ongoing conversation about privacy rights in the digital age must evolve to address the distrust and misconceptions over digital contact tracing.

When Privacy Breaks Down

Unfortunately, fears over digital contact tracing opening the doors to greater government surveillance and privacy violations are not completely unfounded. In South Korea, while the government’s extensive digital contact tracing effort has received praise in reducing the spread of COVID-19, it has also drawn criticisms over the extent of personal information that is disclosed to the public.

The South Korean digital contact tracing system uses CCTV camera footage, location tracking via mobile phones, and bank transactions to assemble detailed travel histories and demographic information of infected individuals. This data is then anonymized and released publicly for citizens to self-check whether they may have been in recent contact with someone infected. However, experts argue that the level of detail revealed is sufficient to identify infected individuals. This is of particular concern to South Korea’s LGBTQ community, as a COVID-19 outbreak in early May linked to an LGBTQ-friendly community in Seoul has sparked a wave of
homophobic backlash from the media, a stark reminder of the strong social stigma against homosexuality and lack of anti-discrimination laws in the country. LGBTQ South Koreans fear that they could potentially be outed if they are identified as a close contact from the May outbreak, which
have discouraged many from getting tested.

The Pursuit of Equitable Use

The episode in South Korea highlights the general lack of legal infrastructure to safeguard privacy rights with regards to digital contact tracing, and how improper oversight can exacerbate existing social inequalities. Another general issue is the lack of government support to encourage adoption of the new technology.

Groups that have historically been discriminated against are disproportionally impacted through the lens of digital contact tracing. For example, members of low-income groups may not be able to afford Bluetooth-equipped smartphones compatible with digital contact tracing, thus not being able to benefit from the system. They are also more likely to live in dense community or group housing settings, increasing the likelihood of being classified as a close contact by current technologies. While use of the COVID Alert app in Canada remains voluntary, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada noted that compared to other countries employing similar digital contact tracing technology like Australia or Switzerland, there are no laws that explicitly forbid organizations from requiring information from the app as a condition of service – for instance, employers requiring that employees not have any exposure notifications on their COVID Alert app to come in to work. In the UK, almost 2 million people were “ping”-ed by the nation’s exposure notification alert system in late July 2021 in what was dubbed the “pingdemic”, leading to massive business and service disruptions as workers were asked by their employers to self-isolate. Again, this would have the greatest impact on those living in poverty who are unable to work from home, require the income from their jobs, and are more likely to receive exposure notifications due to the nature of their work or home situation.

Although digital contact tracing promises a more efficient way of monitoring and managing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, further
collaboration between health, technology, and legal experts and the government will be required to ensure accountability and equitable use of this technology.


References

  1. Taylor MM, Spencer KD, Walke HT. 2021. COVID-19 contact tracing as an enduringly important public health tool. JAMA Health Forum, 2(3):e210189.
  2. Government of Canada. 2021. COVID Alert: Canada’s exposure notification app. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19/covid-alert.html
  3. Phillips J, Babcock R, Suresh S, Fathi A, Krishnaraj G. 2021. The digital response to COVID-19 –Module 1. Digital contact tracing. Digital Global Health and Humanitarianism Lab. https://dghhlab.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/DRP-Module-1-Digital-Contact-Tracing.pdf
  4. Jung G, Lee H, Kim A, Lee U. 2020. Too much information: assessing privacy risks of contact trace data disclosure on people with COVID-19 in South Korea. Front Public Health, 8: 305.
  5. Sekalala S, Dagron S, Forman L, Meier BM. 2020. Analyzing the human rights impact of increased digital public health surveillance during the COVID-19 crisis. Health Hum Rights, 22(2): 7-20.
  6. Ayala G, Bahati M, Balan E, Chang J, Do TD, Fokeerbux NA, …, Walimba J. 2019. Partner notification: a community viewpoint. J Int AIDS Soc, 22(Suppl Suppl 3): e25291.
  7. Leger. (2020). Leger’s Weekly Survey –August 10, 2020. https://leger360.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Legers-Weekly-Survey-August-10th-2020-1.pdf
  8. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. 2020. Privacy review of the COVID Alert exposure notification application. https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/privacy-topics/health-genetic-and-other-body-information/health-emergencies/rev_covid-app/
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