MAGAZINE
Back-up plan: Timandra Harkness on contact tracing apps

Technology presenter Timandra Harkness argues that we need to get our privacy back at the end of the crisis

19 Jun 2020
BY TIMANDRA HARKNESS


CREDIT: Donna Grethen/Ikon

In some ways, it’s a good thing there are no parties at the moment, I would be the person trapping you in the corner, explaining the difference between centralised and decentralised Bluetooth contact-tracing apps, and why de-centralised is better for your privacy, and why some governments are so keen to use the other kind to get more data.

If you’re lucky, we might move the conversation on to how weird it is that Google and Apple are co-operating to design their own, decentralised, privacy-protecting, software for contact-tracing apps – and how it’s even weirder that the two tech giants are effectively forcing governments around the world to use that system.

They want their app to work properly on Apple or Android phones (i.e. most smartphones), because an effective app needs about 80% of smartphone users to run it.

I mean, Silicon Valley protecting our privacy against our own governments? Unprecedented times, indeed.

At this point, let’s suppose that I pause to sip my beer and you make your escape. If we were both using a contact-tracing app, the fact we’d been close together would already have been logged.

We might never have to share that information, especially if neither of us is diagnosed with Covid-19 in the near future, but our social connections have become fodder for state surveillance in a way that would be anathema in normal circumstances.

In South Korea, contact tracing has been very effective at containing Covid-19, but it also publicised the locations of Seoul nightclubs where recent infections took place, which led to the stigmatising of the gay community.

While I have reservations about particular uses of technologies, I accept that our social connections have become the vector for a nasty virus.

I would welcome an efficient system of contact tracing, which means one run by humans even though that makes it even more intrusive.

Coronavirus is a shared problem that needs shared solutions, and I have voluntarily signed up for other apps that request much more personal information to help researchers under-stand and track the pandemic.

But remember the wise words of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel (and Winston Churchill, and Niccolo Machiavelli): “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

More importantly, remember that those in power have already remembered that. Measures being taken now to fight a deadly virus might turn out to be handy for other purposes later. Further research that could be useful for future pandemics- who could object to that?

You can read the whole of this article in our Summer 2020 issue, available by print subscription here and by digital subscription here.  

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