Smartphone Tracking, or Contact Tracing | Context

Digital contact tracing creates location trails allowing for a supervising instance to know, in hindsight, whether two people were in proximity at the same time. Many smartphone apps only function when localization is activated. This has certain benefits, and these are recognized by most users.

Advantages of Tracking

Recently, there have been talks in Europe, the USA and elsewhere to introduce official programs of tracking. Smartphone tracking can be instrumental in limiting the spread of contagious diseases such as Covid-19: instead of hearsay, the datasets are to be considered authentic.

Aside from the Covid pandemic, tracking allows for emergency responders to locate a person in time. This may be decisive for a rescue operation to succeed.

What is more, companies may use tracking apps on business phones to know where employers have spent their time while on the job. Or whether they have engaged in illicit communication.

Tracking also allows for friends to follow you. This can even be fun, unless one of your alleged friends is a stalker. Parents, to name another benefit, can monitor their children with tracking apps which have the ability to reveal whether a kid has roamed a dangerous location.

Most people thus tend to see tracking as beneficial.

On the other hand, there is the problem of data protection. The issue cannot be solved by simply resorting to data servers in a respective country with a tradition of liberal policy, say, in Europe, meant to store information safely.

However, one may limit the dangers to privacy in a number of ways:

  • data can be maintained on the phone, not a server, when it comes to those not infected.
  • locations recognized as sensitive can possibly be redacted by the users.
  • the exact location of a person can automatically be blurred when transferring the data to a server, except for the place of contact with an infected individual.

A frank discussion may be advantageous as data can be maintained for years and might give away a profile of a citizen’s habits. The question is: is there sufficient acceptance for tracking.

Downsides of Tracking

On the social level, there may be single events giving tracking bad headlines. This is the case of blackmailing: an infected person might issue the threat to cough at a public place unless paid a high amount of money, despite being subject to punishment in two instances. This case will, admittedly, occur only rarely.

To name another example in which tracking systems are problematic as to privacy: the memory effect. The person who receives a notification to have been in contact with an infected individual – despite possible errors in testing – might well remember the instance of contact, even if the process of tracking, or tracing analysis, is imperfect.

Once red-flagged, a person or group of persons, e.g. sharing the same housing complex, might discontinue using the app, where this is legal.

Regarding health concerns of the future, administrative measures may give way to stigmatization and social discrimination of both the initially infected and the newly infected, despite willful use of the tracking app due to the benefits.

Tracking also limits a core Western freedom: the freedom of movement. When it comes to the possibility of future (sic), real-time notification of citizens, a tracking app may be abused, labeling a healthy person a hazard whose opinion diverts from a decider of an instance bearing power, be it an administration or a private company. Even today, tracking information may be used in court, depending on the End User License Agreement (EULA).

Bottom line: there are both positive aspects of tracking as there are backsides. If the number of people using an official tracking app is limited, the data will not be worth much. Hence, tracking needs a certain level of public consensus and acceptance for using apps in order for the benefits to substantiate.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
6 May 2020

Author: author

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