The iOS COVID-19 App Ecosystem Has Become A Privacy Minefield

from ars technica

When the notion of enlisting smartphones to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic first surfaced last spring, it sparked a months-long debate: should apps collect location data, which could help with contact tracing but potentially reveal sensitive information? Or should they take a more limited approach, only measuring Bluetooth-based proximity to other phones? Now, a broad survey of hundreds of COVID-19-related apps reveals that the answer is all of the above. And that has made the COVID-19 app ecosystem a kind of wild, sprawling landscape, full of potential privacy pitfalls.

Late last month, Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, released the results of his analysis of 493 COVID-19-related iOS apps across dozens of countries. His study of those apps, which tackle everything from symptom-tracking to telehealth consultations to contact tracing, catalogs the data permissions each one requests. At WIRED’s request, Albright then broke down the dataset further to focus specifically on the 359 apps that handle contact tracing, exposure notification, screening, reporting, workplace monitoring, and COVID-19 information from public health authorities around the globe.

More here.

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3 Comments

  1. While I think it is important to have things such as contact-tracing, I think asking everyone to install these apps will bring up some issues. For example, what exactly is going to be tracked? I think it is important that the creators of these apps make it abundantly clear what they are monitoring because people are going to be very wary of having their privacy violated on such a large scale. How would the average consumer know that their text messages, photos, and documents aren’t being copied and downloaded by the server? As mentioned in the article, many of these apps are actually asking for access to these other applications, but how is that justified?

    Another pitfall with this is that many may view this as a huge invasion of privacy and may think the government is using it to spy on citizens. (Many people believe vaccines have microchips in them so what is stopping them from believing these apps are doing the same?) These same people may believe that contact tracing is not necessary because COVID is not a threat in their minds. I think we all need to agree that there is a pandemic first before contact tracing apps can be fully effective in eliminating the threat of the virus. Another potential issue is that not everyone is going, to tell the truth on the app. Someone could be coughing or lost their sense of taste but need to go to work because they need the money, so they cannot risk not going to work. Obviously, in this situation, they probably would not tell the truth. It is because of these reasons that I do not really see apps for contact tracing to be effective.

  2. Catastrophic events do not usually bode well for personal freedoms, as people are more likely to give them up in an effort to revert back to some form of normality. This reckless submission of privacy often has unintended consequences, and I think we are seeing some of that during this pandemic. It’s completely unnecessary for these apps to request access to your photos, microphone, or camera, but many people will blindly accept these access requests without reading them, thus giving the companies producing these apps more of an ability to look into your private life. Additionally, I doubt the prevalence of tracking will go away when this pandemic is over, as corporations will have no interest getting rid of the valuable information they have collected. This isn’t to say that the collection of this information isn’t helpful. Being able to determine where COVID cases are bad could potentially save the life of you or a loved one. The real question is, is this ability worth the tradeoff of giving away your information. If you are living at a college or are working for specific companies, the choice may not be up to you, as you may be required to download these apps. This is the part of this narrative that I find indefensible. These kinds of apps should always be opt-in. An employee or student should never be required to jeopardize their privacy. The article states that Apple and Google carefully vet these apps, and that may be reassuring, assuming you trust these big tech companies. In my opinion, these companies have just as much of an incentive for your private data to be collected as anyone else. The reality is that once you give permission for these apps to access your information, you have no idea how that information is being used, or to what extent you have left yourself vulnerable. We are one of the first generations of people to experience this new tracking technology, and consequently, we will likely experience some of the worst consequences of its widespread use before they are addressed. It is important that we are especially weary or big tech corporations and their motives, as there will likely be no legal safety nets to protect us from them for many years to come.

  3. I don’t find this surprising in the least. App developers are taking advantage of people’s fears about the pandemic and potential willingness to install an app that will make them feel a little bit safer, without paying much attention to the legitimacy of said app. This is a scheme to the hundreds of applications that were available.You aren’t legally required to install and run it, and nor are you legally required to do anything with its alerts. The only difference being that rather than these apps being hosted on some dodgy looking download site, they are available on the fully legitimate looking app stores provided by Apple and Google. The Google Play store has been a nightmarish hellscape for a while now with bad actors, but Apple, I thought that they curated their apps a little better than that. I just don’t feel its safe out there with all these hackers and how everything right now with technology is new and how people aren’t secured with safety. Some people will agree with terms of condition and not knowing what they are signing up to and its just different now with everything going on. You can just call the person with Covid and ask him/her questions and just go from there. I don’t trust these apps, and us as people need to be more smarter.

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