In the weeks following the roll-out of the first COVID-19 contact tracing apps in early 2020, public health officials and researchers at the University of Maryland were trying to understand why the uptake of these apps was so low.
At the time, Canada and America—like other countries that had successfully designed and released contact-tracing apps—were reeling from the devastating effects of the first wave.
If therewasa time to expect mass adoption rates of these containment tools, it was then.
However, that wasn’t the case.
According to a case investigation conducted by the university (in conjunction with The Washington Post), only 30% of all smartphone users were explicitly willing to use a contact-tracing app—and among them, more than 70% cited privacy and data safety as the main reason.
Other rationales were put forth, but it quickly became apparent that most people did not trust big tech.
The inaction was so unexpected that Apple and Google (some of the first companies to incorporate COVID-tracing tools into their native OS) publicly pledged to build privacy features into their future updates. These features would include anonymity options, manually operable time limits, user choice of data for upload, and more.
The use of these apps didn’t bode well for data safety, particularly with the following concerns:
- Intrusive government surveillance
- The commodification of public data for private benefit
Despite this, states that have made use of centralized contact-tracing apps have reported a larger level of containment than those that didn’t.
So, it must be asked, where’s the line? Contact tracing apps have, indeed, been effective, but at what cost? Let’s take a closer look.
How Does Contact Tracing Work?
Contact tracing works by identifying and monitoring people who have been near someone afflicted by an infectious disease. Contact tracing aims to immediately trace infected individuals, isolate them, and stop the spread of illness.
Here is a summary of the steps involved in contact tracing:
- Interview an infected individual to get a list of people they’ve come in close contact with.
- Notify those persons and provide information on what they should do next.
- Encourage contacts to undergo testing to see if they have been infected.
- Monitor their symptoms and give further guidance on treatment and self-quarantine.
- Repeat the process with anyone else who has had close contact with the patient.
What Are the Different Types of Contact Tracing Apps?
Many tools have been developed to assist with confirmed case identification and contact tracing. Some more popular apps include TraceTogether, NHS, COVID Safe.
Overall, these apps are designed to serve at least one of three main goals:
- Outbreak response
- Proximity tracing
- Symptom tracing
Outbreak response apps, the most commonly used, are designed for medics engaged in the actual fieldwork of close contact tracing.
The apps allow them to access a detailed, relational database of user profiles and manage potential quarantine period cases through their real-time interface.
Proximity tracing apps, on the other hand, use Bluetooth or GPS technology to allow the monitoring of the location (and movements) of potentially exposed individuals.
The third kind, symptom tracing apps, allows users to monitor their wellbeing as soon as they develop symptoms of severe disease.
Symptom tracing apps are beneficial because they give public medics access to syndromic dataen masse. This allows them to assess the efficacy of containment measures and vaccination status across multiple demographics.
This table shows a more detailed list of the features and (de)merits of close contact tracing tools:
Applications, Needs, Pros & Cons
Outbreak Response Apps
Proximity Tracking Apps
Symptom Tracking Tools
How Do They Work and Who Makes Them?
While the core purpose of these contact tracer tools remains mostly the same—to track people who test positive over time and ease containment—their algorithmic design differs significantly.
When a SafeEntry user, for instance, discovers that they have the virus, they can quickly alert nearby users (and medics on the admin end) of their proximity by logging their status into the app.
Given how sensitive confidential information is, however, many users are justifiably queasy about the inherent privacy concerns that surround sharing such information.
Yet, as we mentioned earlier, for close contact tracing apps to be effective on a regional scale, they must be adopteden masse.
This brings to bear important questions about data management design: specifically, how these contact tracer apps are made to handle thecollection,encryption, anddistribution of their data.
How can a user be certain of the integrity of their most personal information? What about their phone number, social security number, credit card numbers, and electronic financial details?
How readily can the authorization protocols guard against malicious third parties? And just as important is the question of content transmission: is the collected data transmitted automatically, or does the user get to decide at every step of the way?
Approaches to Design – Centralized vs. Decentralized
Apps designed using the centralized approach collect data from individual users and send it to a central contact tracer server controlled by the government/app proprietor.
While centralized apps are meant to identify and relay epidemiologically relevant information (enough so that the analytical benefits can seep into national-level decision-making), they also tend to grant their designers access to more confidential information than most people would be comfortable sharing.
For example, South Korea’s first contact tracing app and Singapore’s TraceTogether fit the description of a hyper-efficient but invasive model.
Fortunately, the decentralized contact tracer design approach mitigates this worry. Decentralized monitoring tools have it coded into their algorithms that the data log on test results is never relayed, whether offline or online.
Any information that has to be sent out is done so manually and is not forwarded to any central server but to one of many shared, automated nodes.
Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification System (GAENS) is an example of a decentralized tracking tool that ensures all manually transmitted information is encrypted before receipt, preserving your anonymity.
What Are the Privacy Concerns That Surround Contact Tracing Apps?
Two main concerns surround close contact tracings apps, namely:
- Bluetooth Concerns
- GPS Concerns
Bluetooth Concerns – Your Anonymity
With Bluetooth-based tracking tools, your handset will usually beam out data packets containing identification codes unique to your device.
The danger associated with this kind of communication is that an experienced hacker can identify and intercept packetsen route to a central server. This allows them to track its source the next time an upload occurs.
GPS Concerns – Your Location
GPS tracking apps pose an even greater privacy risk as they have the added disadvantage of logging not only your current location but also your past travels.
In the wrong hands, malicious third parties can easily identify and track your movements and location, and use this to launch “man-in-middle” attacks as well as gain leverageable information about your private life.
To ensure that you’re data is safe while using close contact tracing tools, you’ll want to:
Ensure that your preferred app uses encrypted and decentralized servers—you can do this by skimming through its documentation and expert reviews
Ensure that the app is an authentic copy, not a clone—you can do this by checking for a digital signature
Download/buy the app from theofficialstore
- Invest in a Faraday bag, a pretty neatly designed pocket that blocks all electronic signals from reaching your electronic device
All in all, before downloading any app, you need to do all your research, read reviews, and verify that your preferred store is, indeed, the official store.
As we do for all our customers, we also want to insist that you invest in a Faraday bag.
If your privacy is as important to you as it is for 71% of other smartphone and telephone users, then it’s simply a must-have.
GoDark Faraday Bags – Will They Help?
Yes, they’ll help. But don’t take it from us:
“If you’re worried about the current state of affairs in your region and have doubts about the motives of your governing bodies then you need to purchase a Faraday bag!”— Chris S.
“Works great, get one for yourself.”— Anonymous
“Highly recommended, everyone needs to GoDark.” — Anonymous
“Works as advertised. Tested it and it shut everything out 100%.” — Anonymous
At GoDark Bags, we have a super simple philosophy: your electronics are your own. In other words, you’re responsible for them, and only you should be in control of their information. We firmly believe that it’s your right to control when they transmit data or receive electromagnetic signals.
Armed with this philosophy, our product-design team has taken their time to create bags that:
- Blocksignals effectively, including cell, GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi signals
- Have been thoroughly tested by a third-party quality-control specialist forlongevityandsignal blocking
- Have a simple and secureopen-close mechanism
Whether you’re looking for a way to enhance your data privacy, track your physical and mental health, or protect your handset/laptop from electrostatic damage, GoDark’s got you covered—literally.
Frequently Asked Questions
If I remove my SIM card can I still be tracked?
You can still be traced without a SIM card, as your phone has an IMEI number built into its firmware. Cell phone towers can still ping your phone for this reason. You should also be aware that GPS signals may still record your location, especially if you have a Wi-Fi connection.
Who did your third-party testing?
GoDark bags are tested by the industry’s leading materials and electronics tester, Element. They perform frequent product tests and generate engineering reports about the product’s signal-blocking performance over various frequencies.
Will GoDark Bags block the contact tracing apps?
Yes. All contact tracing we’re aware of uses the Bluetooth signal on your mobile phone to operate. GoDark Bags block all incoming and outgoing Bluetooth signals, as well as cell signals, GPS, and WiFi.