The introduction of contact tracing apps has brought digital privacy into the forefront of the public mind. Many consider whether the risks of data breach outweigh the benefits for public health. Yet, this hesitation prevents contact tracing from reaching its full potential as a public health tool.
“Big brother is watching you.”
George Orwell’s iconic slogan refers to government surveillance in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The foreboding quote dredges up the deep fears of internet users – what if our digital activities are being tracked?
With the onset of COVID-19, multiple governments have introduced contact tracing to contain virus outbreaks. The World Health Organisation defines contact tracing as “the process of identifying, assessing, and managing people who have been exposed” to the virus to “prevent onward transmission.” Most governments conduct contact tracing through technology – a fast, cost-efficient, and accessible means. Using technology for contact tracing, however, introduces the possibility of an egregious breach of privacy. Collecting individual data points from people may initially seem negligible. Together, they reveal tremendous amounts of behavioural data liable for misuse.
Immuni: the Italian contact tracing app
Last year, Italy launched its own contact tracing app called Immuni, which Bocconi students can download voluntarily. To use Immuni, people must be at least 14 years old and provide their province of residence. Beyond the initial set-up, the app does not require identification or geolocation data. Immuni itself houses a two-phase exposure notification solution pioneered by Google and Apple. This solution uses less-invasive Bluetooth technology rather than GPS.
According to the European Parliament, both companies introduced application programming interfaces that allow “public health authorities to work across Android and IOS devices” while “maintaining user privacy.” Notably, the contact tracing data will remain on the user’s device. If the user later tests positive, they can subsequently choose to anonymously upload temporary exposure data items that notify other affected people. Consequently, Immuni operates on consent-based and privacy-first principles.
Contact tracing: the opinion of Bocconi students
Francesco, a 20-year old Bocconi student, supports public usage of Immuni. He recalls how the app is “super convenient” and “much better than many other apps we have in Europe.” Nevertheless, Francesco identifies Immuni’s crucial drawback: the app has failed to “leverage network effects.” People have a lack of incentive to download it, which is problematic. Contact tracing becomes more effective as more data is reported, which enables authorities to efficiently track those who might be affected. One way to receive more information is simply to have more participants. Due to large amounts of fake news and public denigration, people became more sceptical, refrained from downloading Immuni, and submitted less personal data. As such, the app could not reach its full contact tracing potential. Francesco feels that appropriate marketing is required to dispel fears about privacy issues. As Francesco understood the mechanism behind Immuni, he feels “completely safe” about using the app and emphasises it as crucial for tackling the pandemic.
Indeed, Immuni has room for improvement. According to Reuters, Immuni “had a lukewarm reception” with only 10.4 million people downloading it; Italy has a population of 60 million. As public health tools rely on participation, it is paramount for that proportion to change. Since Immuni is voluntary, the Italian government’s best bet for increasing participation is by communicating the app’s value for users. This communication can be achieved through marketing and support from key stakeholders. For example, Bocconi University has promoted Immuni. Ultimately, Immuni’s case demonstrates that public health tools are significantly complex. As these tools touch upon personal lives, they need to be accompanied by clear communication and social acceptance. With both these factors, Immuni is bound to reach its full potential. But currently, Immuni is setting a quiet precedence for privacy protection during challenging pandemics.