We all have a right to privacy — but there comes a time when the safety of our community outweighs that right. A pandemic is one of those times.
On June 18, the Federal government announced they would be releasing a COVID-19 contact tracing app for smartphones. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been careful to stress that downloading this app will be entirely optional, but the more people who download it, the more effective it will be at mitigating further spread of the virus.
The app, built by Shopify, will use Bluetooth rather than GPS technology to track users’ contacts, meaning that while the phones will hold data on who their carriers come in contact with, they will not record any information indicating where these interactions take place. Bluetooth-based tracking apps also hold contact data on individual phones rather than a central database — making them more secure than GPS-based apps according to Amnesty International.
Additionally, those who test positive for COVID-19 will have control over whether they notify their contacts — just like they would if they didn’t have the app. And if individuals who test positive do upload their results to the app, it will not only anonymously inform their friends and family, but also people they may not know they put at risk, like a grocery store clerk. On top of that, an individual’s contacts will be deleted after 14 days — this is truly about as secure of a tracing app as we could hope for.
Of course, no app collecting your data comes without risks. This contact tracing app will record anonymous markers of who you come in contact with that potentially could be traced; and while these markers may be deleted after 14 days, you have to take the government’s word for that.
There is a risk to your personal privacy, and it will be up to each individual whether that risk is worth mitigating the virus and maybe even saving a life for.
But this won’t be the first app people have voluntarily given their data to, they do it with large corporations all the time — corporations who don’t need to rely on your vote next term to keep their salary.
Google keeps a user profile of you to send targeted ads (try typing “ad settings” into your search bar), social media giants sell your preferences to external apps like Spotify. Even the Tim Hortons app has come under scrutiny for tracking users’ GPS location without expressed permission from users. Owning a smartphone and downloading apps means your data and location is already widely available, the difference here is that instead getting to skip the line next time you buy an Iced Capp, you could save a life.
The app will be more impactful for some people than others. Individuals living in crowded spaces like residence buildings or spending time on busy university campuses where spread is more likely to occur should be particularly encouraged to download it. And it’s important to remember that some of the most vulnerable people — seniors and those experiencing homelessness — might not have access to the app, be it through lack of funds or technological know-how. Those of us who do have the privilege of choosing whether to opt-in should take advantage of it, for their sakes as well as our own.
It may be tempting to wait to download the app, to sit back and “let them sort out any bugs” before committing yourself. But this isn’t the latest iOS update, this is an app that has the potential to save lives, and the more people who download it once it comes out, the more effective it will be. There’s a time and a place for digital caution, but now isn’t in.
Public health and the good of the community outweighs personal privacy concerns.
And obviously a contact tracing app is not the most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus, wearing masks, social distancing and rigorous testing have proved far more effective containment measures. But having a way to inform strangers who’ve come into contact with a COVID-19 case at a grocery store that they’ve been exposed so they can isolate and seek testing will do something — and during a pandemic, every little something counts.