The Privacy Puzzle Of Fighting COVID-19 With Bluetooth

It's a conundrum without a simple answer. Mobile phones will soon be brought into the battle against the spread of COVID-19 and there are two options, depending on how flexible you are on privacy.

In one model, not to be rolled out in the UK, a central authority will run the show, linking up people who have tested positive for the virus with the members of the public that their phone shows they have been in contact with.

it seems too authoritarian for many, placing locations of all participating citizens in the hands of a central arm of government.

Hence, "The Telegraph" explains how the system the UK is opting for will work once Google and Apple begin to cooperate from next month onward. Smartphone users will need to download an app and have their position anonymously tracked as the Bluetooth on their phone sends out signals to other app users, to let the system know they have been in close proximity.

This means that when somebody tests positive for the condition, the app can alert those people they have come into contact with. 

It's sounds like a very good idea, but by trying to get away from a central government source through opting for a P2P approach, flaws in the system become apparent.

The most obvious issue is how someone is supposed to know they have COVID-19 when testing in the UK is at such a low level. This may not apply if you are part of the NHS when the promised capacity is ramped up to 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month.

However, for the average person in the street, it's likely the advice for those suffering symptoms will be stay at home and self-isolate. Unless testing becomes universal, many who only suffer mild symptoms may never know for sure whether they were infected.

There is another issue with Bluetooth. Anyone who has tried to connect a device in a cafe or tube train will know that there are a lot of Bluetooth devices out there that can ping one another from something like ten times the recommended two-metre social distancing guideline. They can also work through floors in flats and through windows.

The result? People who never actually came within two metres of one another might be flagged up as having met, leading to people who have had little chance of catching the virus from the infected person being unduly worried.

Sure, someone may have tested positive, but you could have been in the neighbouring train carriage or separated by a glass window as you sipped a coffee in a bar as they strode past outside. 

The other very real danger is that people come to rely on the technology that requires the other person to have installed. Not everyone who goes on to catch the virus will have a tracking app downloaded on their phone, and so it could give people who have been exposed to the virus to assume a false sense of security because their phone hasn't been alerted to a recent exposure to a COVID-19 sufferer. 

This is the risk of observing rights and protecting privacy. An authoritarian government could insist that all phone users have the app installed and all those who come into contact with a sufferer are forcibly isolated.

That's not the society we live in, and so we will have to make do with a technology that could be useful for data analysts looking at the spread of the disease but are only likely to prove of limited use to the general public. 

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