Halting the coronavirus outbreak and monitoring its spread has become the number one priority for countries around the world, as many begin to plan their gradual confinement-exit strategies.
Rabat – Several countries looking for a way out of lockdowns have resorted to contact-tracing apps to track citizens and residents who have contracted COVID-19.
However, several watchdog institutions have raised questions over the risk of a short-term concern about stopping the spread of the virus becoming a long-term danger of ushering in a surveillance Big Brother state. Some would even argue about its efficiency considering it as a High-Tech supplement more than an effective system replacing old-fashioned contact tracing.
Morocco is among the countries developing a COVID-19 tracking mobile application. The app is set to launch at the end of April and aims to identify potential infections and individuals who made contact with COVID-19 patients over the past 21 days in order to protect at-risk individuals. The Moroccan government, through the Ministries of Interior, Health and Industry, entrusted the application development to the Digital Development Agency (ADD).
The new technology is designed to facilitate Morocco’s gradual exit from lockdown at a regional level. People living in COVID-19 free regions will have digital movement authorization under the form of a QR code. The tracking app, based on GPS and/or Bluetooth, is similar to those applied in China, South Korea, and Singapore.
Traffic tracking during quarantine
The General Directorate for National Security has launched a new app for traffic tracking, currently being used in Rabat, Sale, and Temara. The application, to be later expanded at the national level, allows police to track the movement of citizens during the period of the State of Health Emergency, and also to detect people who do not respect the regulations in place to limit the spread of coronavirus.
“This mobile application will allow the police to find out the checkpoints that citizens have passed through in advance, which will facilitate the process of tracking their movements,” Said Aziz Retmaoui, Police commissioner at Rabat.
Apart from government measures, private companies and individuals have also used technology to track Coronavirus cases. A work team made up of engineers and doctors launched an initial version of a connected mask called MIDAD (Intelligent Mask of Automatic Remote Detection of COVID-19) and an intelligent mobile application of tracking and detection (Trackorona).
The MIDAD smart mask and the Trackorona application are a 100% Moroccan project, they offer an innovative and low-cost method of predicting and diagnosing the virus.
Despite widespread agreement about the utility of tracking technology in the efficient management of lockdown and the post-pandemic period, watchdogs and actors expressed concerns over the protection of privacy and people’s data.
Morocco’s National Committee for Monitoring Data Protection expressed its readiness to cooperate with the government to improve citizens’ digital confidence and answer users’ questions. The committee recommended transparent communication with users about the end-use of these applications. The government should destroy the data once the state of emergency ends, or to use them anonymously if necessary, in scientific research, the committee said.
The committee also highlighted the importance of ensuring the tracking system streamlines with the policy for COVID-19 diagnosis and tests. This has raised a crucial question of whether these tracking apps are efficient enough in limiting the transmission of the virus.
The committee plans to develop a parallel report on the tracking system’s respect for the protection of personal information. It has also recommended that the government allow auditing according to applied laws and respect the right of access to information to actors and institutions. (Law 31-13)
Google & Apple tracking apps
Apple and Google have recently launched a tracking system based on sharing data via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). The app is designed for the Public Health authorities. It will inform users if they are COVID-19 infected or alert them if they are near or in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the virus.
The apps, expected to be functional in mid-May, will be rolled out progressively through voluntary downloads. The technology will later be available in operating systems such as IOS and Android. The initiative has, however, received criticism over fears of personal data violations. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)called for the limitation of access and a guarantee of users’ privacy.
The European Union has also asked for more clarification on the apps. The EU’s tough privacy rules could make implementing the apps more complicated for Google and Apple within the EU zone.
China using multiple COVID-19 tracking methods
China has long been a leader in using technology across different sectors. During the pandemic, they used different methods such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, cloud computing, blockchain, and 5G.
During the outbreak, China made its algorithms publicly available in order to improve efficiency and to support coronavirus testing and research. The Chinese experience is said to have proved successful; its tech solutions have proven effective in the fight against COVID-19. Technological applications were, and still are, an integral part of the daily life of the Chinese population before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health codes in big data systems are already in use in 200 Chinese cities. The technology classifies users in three colors (Green, Yellow, or Red) according to the tracking findings. Yet, people are not aware of how they are classified.
Users classified as red must isolate themselves or risk fines and jail. China also developed QR codes for people using public transport; a Close Contact Health Detector that functions by scanning the QR code and the broadcasting of messages about the virus on social media.
In contrast with other countries where concerns about privacy are higher, the Chinese have chosen to give up personal information. To make an inquiry, users in China scan a Quick Response code on their smartphones using apps like the payment service Alipay or social media platform WeChat. Once the new app is registered with a phone number, users are asked to enter their name and ID number.
From the Chinese perspective, this is an efficient way to monitor the spread of the virus. Yet, concerns and even complaints were raised by some Chinese social media users about the lack of transparency over how the app works and what data is being stored and for what purpose it is being used beyond tracking the virus.
Read also: Microsoft Launches COVID-19 Tracker
Other global experiences in code tracking
On March 20, Singapore launched the TraceTogether app and made it available for free to developers worldwide through the Open source system. Singapore’s health ministry explained that personal details such as users’ names would not be collected. The system does not record location data or access the user’s phone contact list.
The Hong Kong government, meanwhile, has rolled out electronic tracker wristbands that alert authorities to breaches of lockdown. Taiwan is also deploying tracking technology to enforce lockdown measures, but unlike Hong Kong, it monitors cellular signals on phones. South Korea is also publishing peoples’ movements before they were diagnosed with the virus by retracing their steps (GPS, credit cards, …)
The United States is currently in discussions with Facebook and Google about potentially using aggregated and anonymized location data from smartphones. Facebook has already unveiled a coronavirus “heat map” powered by its data. The map is aimed at helping track the spread of the disease and facilitating potential exit strategies from lockdown.
Facebook developed the map with millions of responses to surveys of Facebook and Google users as part of an effort to monitor the spread of the virus.
Yet, Facebook has been criticized this week for allowing registration of users’ history of activities and geolocations without their knowledge. The network also met criticism in 2018 for possible disclosure of the data of millions of users to third parties.
In the UK, the debate related to the tracking app is focusing on public concerns that data collected to fight coronavirus could be stored indefinitely or for a disproportionate amount of time or will be used for unrelated purposes.
Yes, to Artificial Intelligence, no to jeopardizing privacy
While many governments have opted for these tracking applications as the only way to efficiently manage post-COVID-19 quarantines. Opposing voices have suggested alternatives such as GPS data.
People could only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device instead of a centralized repository, and are used only for public health purposes for the duration of this pandemic.
In some countries, watchdogs and experts have already expressed reservations as to the scope and scale of governments’ use of this technology to target human rights advocates and political activists. They recommended that the apps should be regulated by a specific law and terms of reference.
They also recommended that governments provide clear, regular updates, including details of the models being used to interpret people’s data and set up a panel involving patients and the wider public to ensure that privacy rights are upheld.
The new apps, however, may have technical issues that could limit their utilization, such as the complicated journey from detection to notification, low network and internet connectivity, lack of access to smartphones for poor and disadvantaged people, lack of compatibility with a range of devices or operating systems, and the capacity to support the Bluetooth Low Energy system, making the target even harder to reach.
Current cellphone technologies are not good enough to distinguish between people in the same house and those living in surrounding residences so they may show different and conflicting results.
When the apps become operational, major marketing needs to be done to convince people to download them.
In conclusion, the sharing of data for any purpose beyond defeating coronavirus should be legitimate, necessary, and require users’ consent while being conditioned by the law.