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Will Contact-Tracing Apps be Part of the New Normal?

In early April, Tech titans Apple and Google, the most unusual of bed fellows, announced a partnership to help health authorities worldwide track corona virus cases with a contact-tracing app. Should you test positive for Covid-19, the app will notify every person you come into contact with as a means of protection.

As we enter a new era of change, life after Covid-19 will usher in a new wave of living. The question is: will contact tracing apps be part of the “new normal”?

Smartphone apps and technology have been widely used in Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore as a means of limiting the spread of the virus, leading many European countries to ask what impact these apps will have on our data privacy and civil liberties.

There are deep misgivings in countries like Germany that had witnessed decades of institutionalised snooping. But even in other Western countries where this is not the case, these apps raise serious questions: How is the data being used? Who has access it? Will it be exploited by companies after the Pandemic ends?

Let’s unpack how these contact-tracing apps work. They are designed in accordance with the EU’s data privacy regulations, and the technical specifications include cryptographic key accompanied by a Bluetooth-based function. In layman terms, once installed, the apps use Bluetooth low energy (LE) technology to record when a phone comes into close contact with another app-user. If you or the person you encountered reported symptoms, the other party would be swiftly notified.

Apple’s draft technical specification sheet states that while you’re being traced, the server connected to the app will never have access to the information of every person you come into contact with. Theoretically, the apps work anonymously, and store data collated on a temporary basis without tracking your location.

However, there is growing evidence hinting that these contact-tracing apps may not work. Researchers at the University of Oxford simulated a city of one million people and implemented the virtual tracking system. Their findings reveal that for the app to be effective in suppressing the pandemic, a minimum of 80 per cent of smartphone users in the UK would need to install the app. This would account for at least 56 per cent of the UK population to date.

Reticence surrounding the technology might prove to be a barrier. Surveys of 6,000 potential app-users from five countries suggest the level of cooperation is low. In Singapore, a contact-tracing app was launched last month. Only 17 per cent of the population installed it.

However, the University of Oxford research team believe that even if less than 56 percent of the population download the app, it could still help limit the number of cases and deaths reinforcing Tesco’s slogan “Every Little Helps”.

While experts and tech titans are working hard to abide by the strict privacy regulations in place, government officials are going to have to work very hard to convince the public the benefits of contact-tracing and ensure the user’s privacy if these apps are going to be part of our new normal.

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