12 Oct TECH UPDATE 2020: PRIVACY
Why should you share personal information?
When & who with?
We all get annoyed by unsolicited marketing email, but now it’s more important than that. I’m sure you’ve been reading about the thinking behind the Coronavirus track-and-trace apps, which are focussed on identifying those at risk, and providing messaging to encourage isolation, and thus a reduced spread of the disease. The UK government recently decided to switch to the non-centralised technology Apple and Google are using. This mostly because they could get it to work without users having to run the app in the foreground for the bluetooth handshake between peoples phones to work (doing this is both irritating, and kills your battery life).
The reason governments were reticent is that the app component created by the Android/iOS teams doesn’t allow user information to be read, or shared to a central database (Google and Apple believed maintaining user privacy was key).
Big government or big tech?
The fact that these apps are being rolled-out worldwide is a tacit acknowledgement of smartphone penetration. The problem governments have had creating something robust, reliable and interoperable between phone platforms is a de-facto acknowledgement that they don’t ‘get’ technology as well as they should.
In a recent Guardian article, the leader of the Latvian tracing app team (Latvia is one the world’s most digital countries) explains how this approach disintermediates the government contact tracers, and hobbles governments’ ability to usefully analyse and progress cases, and better understand the locations and causes of disease hotspots.
At a time when ‘big government’ worldwide is trusted less than ever, should we be trusting ‘big tech’ more? What about the Facebook scandals and the alleged state manipulation of social media?
Perhaps a way through this is to trust the people themselves – each other. We’ve seen a huge surge in community spirit – people pulling together – both driven by the virus, and other issues, like Black Lives Matter. A proof point is the fact that over 750,000 people registered to be an NHS volunteer in the day after this scheme was announced.
The only person who can judge whether you’re prepared to share your information is you; and the only way you’ll do it usefully and effectively is if you know why it is being requested, how it will be used, for how long, and by whom (a body you trust, let’s hope). That’s called informed consent. Governments can easily create an app, using the Google/Apple component, with an optional ‘send my details’ setting for people to use if they are found to have been in contact with someone infected.