Governments across the world have turned to mobile apps for contact-tracing. However, a study in the Nature journal, based on the analysis of 50 such apps on Google Play Store, reveals that several of them do not ensure the privacy of users’ data.
The researchers, Tanusree Sharma and Masooda Bashir, found that 30 of the 50 apps demand access to phone features, such as contacts, photos, call information, and audio settings. Only 16 apps promise anonymity and encryption of personal data and say that they will use the information only in an aggregated format.
Most of these apps are meant for real-time alerts and monitoring isolation and quarantine through location-based tracking.
Six Indian apps were part of the study, including the ones released by the governments of West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, and Punjab. The central government’s Aarogya Setu app was not part of the study.
Out of the 50 apps, 48% were meant to be a tool for information, 34% for tracking, 10% for assessment of infection status, and 8% for scientific research.
Of the 50 apps, 20 were built by governments and other official sources.
A major concern is how the apps could use this data after the pandemic. This includes risks of surveillance by governments.
Disease-related surveillance is inevitable in the current situation, but it is equally important to draw a framework that governs data privacy, the researchers say.
The use of technology to save lives in the face of the pandemic is justifiable, but without transparency and accountability, it could give way to future violation of civil liberties, the authors say.
They cite the example of the September 2001 terror attacks in the US to say that it is hard to regain lost liberties.