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Are contact-tracing apps a scourge or savior?

June 17, 2020, 4:59 PM UTC

Will contact-tracing apps help contain the pandemic, or will they flop while normalizing mass surveillance?

That’s the substance of a major debate now raging among privacy and public health advocates. As countries rush to roll out contact-tracing tech, which seeks to notify people who may have come into contact with COVID-19, some are encountering complications.

Early problems may hurt hopes. Amnesty International, the civil-rights group, warns that apps distributed by the governments of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Norway are some of the world’s most privacy-invasive. The three apps actively track and upload people’s GPS coordinates to centralized servers, a potential security and privacy nightmare. These systems “go far beyond what is justified,” Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s security lab, said in a statement.

Norway took the hint. Heeding a warning from its own data-protection authority on Friday, the country reluctantly pulled its contact-tracing app this week. Camilla Stoltenberg, director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said her team disagreed with the data-protection authority’s determination, but would “delete all data and pause work” regardless. Defiantly, Stoltenberg added that without the app, Norway “will be less equipped to prevent new outbreaks that may occur locally or nationally.”

The problems don’t end there. A vulnerability in a Qatari contact-tracing app potentially exposed a million people’s personal details in May. Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, France, Iceland, and United Arab Emirates are pursuing a centralized model like Norway’s, which is less ideal for security and privacy. The worst offenders risk turning public opinion against all contact-tracing app efforts.

The apps won’t work if people fail to use them. Researchers estimate that 60% of a country’s population must adopt the technology for it to stop a second wave of pandemic infections. On Tuesday, Germany released its version of a contact-tracing app, but a June 10 survey indicated that only 41% of Germans would be willing to download it. (If the majority of the population adhered to social distancing, hygiene, and mask-wearing guidelines, the apps might be effective with as little as 20% adoption.)

There is hope for privacy preservation. Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy, and Switzerland are some of the countries that have opted for a decentralized approach to data collection, meaning people’s data will be stored on their own phones rather than on government servers. And a system in development by MIT scientists, called “private automatic contact tracing,” sounds promising too.

If a contact-tracing app were to become available in the United States, would you download it? Please send me a note sharing your point of view; we’ll consider featuring it in an upcoming newsletter.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett



Bend the knee. The CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Amazon have signaled that they're open to testifying before the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing related to antitrust concerns. Apple, which is facing two EU antitrust probes related to Apple Pay and its App Store, has not yet agreed. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is considering rolling back legal protections for online publishers, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Who left the door open? An internal report by a CIA task force determined that the theft of top-secret hacking tools from the agency in 2016 might never have been discovered if WikiLeaks, the secret-leaking website, had not published a trove of stolen documents related to the incident in 2017. The report, prepared for then-head of the CIA Mike Pompeo and since obtained by the Washington Post, said the CIA team's security practices were "woefully lax."

A tale of two earnings. Chinese giant ByteDance, owner of the viral video app TikTok, reported $5.6 billion in revenue for the first quarter of the year. The sum is more than double—a 130% increase over—the same period a year prior, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, Oracle shares fell 5% on Tuesday after the company reported that it missed analysts' expectations. Revenue fell 6% to $10.44 billion from a year ago as the pandemic took a toll on the company's cloud-computing business, CEO Safra Catz said.

All the fake news that's fit to print. Russian fake-news peddlers are maintaining a lower profile by amplifying American-made disinformation rather than original content. One such incident involved Russian trolls and bots promoting a conspiracy theory about a faulty Iowa Caucus app, the New York Times reports. Meanwhile, a group of researchers outed another Russian influence campaign that operated in the dark for six years and shared thousands of pieces of false information on social media, including fake tweets from politicians. 

Getting the Face-boot. Facebook recently removed nearly 900 accounts associated with far-right groups, like those of the Proud Boys and American Guard. The groups were promoting hate and violence amid ongoing protests over racial inequality and police brutality in the U.S. Also, in a semi-reversal of its earlier commitment to keep selling and displaying political advertising, Facebook will allow users to "turn off" these ads for the 2020 election

Who's a good boy?


While we're on the subject of contact-tracing apps, the Wall Street Journal has an eye-opening dive into the economy of location-tracking apps. Are they a privacy-breaching scourge, a key source of data for public-health authorities tasked with fighting the coronavirus pandemic, or both?

While an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Joshua Anton created an app to prevent users from drunk dialing, which he called Drunk Mode. He later began harvesting huge amounts of user data from smartphones to resell to advertisers.

Now Mr. Anton’s company, called X-Mode Social Inc., is one of a number of little-known location-tracking companies that are being deployed in the effort to reopen the country. State and local authorities wielding the power to decide when and how to reopen are leaning on these vendors for the data to underpin those critical judgment calls.


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Square’s head of lending thinks the PPP still needs more changes to help the smallest businesses by Anne Sraders

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U.S. retail sales surge in May but remain well below normal levels by Phil Wahba 

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Chinese scientists have successfully transmitted a special cryptographic key, used to encode and decode messages, between a satellite and two ground stations that were 700 miles apart. The system used quantum entanglement, a property of particle-scale physics, to create a communications system whose ciphers are resistant to interception and tampering. The work of the 24-person team, published in the scientific journal Nature on Monday, could one day form the basis of a super-secure global communications network beamed from space.