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Contact Tracing – What It Is and Whether It Is Safe

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Oh 2020 how how so many of us hate you. We have dealt with so much this year. The biggest unpleasant surprise that 2020 has given us has been a global pandemic. To date COVID-19 has killed over 229,000 in the United States alone and Over 1 Million globally. Scientists and medical professionals have been in a frenzy trying to figure out how the virus works, how to slow the spread, and how to make a safe vaccine that will work. In the strategy to combat COVID-19 one of the latest weapons implemented is contact tracing.

What Is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is when you identify someone that has come into contact with another person that is infected with COVID-19. It is considered an important strategy in preventing the spread of the virus. The theory is that if those exposed can be identified and quarantined we can get ahead of this pandemic. Let’s face it, we all want the Corona nightmare to finally come to an end. Communications related to contact tracing are confidential and you only submit the information that you want to submit.

What does all of this look like? Here is a hypothetical example. It is discovered that an infected person went to a shop. They come into close contact with three people. Each of those three people come into contact with three more people. What did we find out? There is one person infected and twelve others exposed to the virus. If everyone exposed quarantines this will help slow the spread of the virus. This is a very simplified explanation. The following graphic should help.

Google and Apple have been working on a contact tracing system for their Operating Systems. You will find it in your device settings. With an app the process described above goes mobile and works from our phones. It might look like this:

  1. You go out to buy a coffee at your favorite shop.
  2. A notification on your phone shows that someone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 was in close proximity to you.
  3. You now quarantine yourself to avoid exposing others.
  4. If you begin to show symptome you tell the app and others will be be warned if they had previously been in close proximity to you.

It’s not hard to see how this process could help us slow down exposure to the virus.

Is Contact Tracing Safe?

To me the question of the safety of contact tracing boils down to three concerns.

  • Is it private?
  • Is it secure?
  • Given the pandemic, is it safe to not implement contact tracing?

Is contact tracing private?

The answer to this question is that it depends on what aspect of the process that you are talking about. While contact tracing with your Android or iPhone your information, including your location, isn’t “phoned home” so someone can take note and find you. It isn’t being reported to anyone what you had for breakfast or your political or religious preferences. On the other hand, for the app to work correctly you do lose some privacy. That can’t be denied. Some things to keep in mind though:

  • If you use Google (that includes using an Android device) you have already given up some of your privacy.
  • By using social media you have already given up some of your privacy.
  • Taking a bunch of online quizzes on places like Facebook results in giving up some of your privacy.
  • If you use Antivirus (and it is important to do so) you have already given up some of your privacy.

I think this comes down to the question of if the price you pay in privacy is worth the benefit of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Is contact tracing secure?

Are there security risks with contact tracing apps? There can be. Is your data stored in a remote centralized location or on your phone? Many contact tracing apps store your data on your phone. Storing it on your phone is a lot better for you because you will be keeping your data with you instead and not trusting it in the hands of someone else.

Keep in mind is that anything can be hacked if someone finds a way to exploit a vulnerability in it’s programming. A contact tracing app uses GPS or Bluetooth. Granted Bluetooth is more secure than GPS because Bluetooth uses a secure and changing anonymous ID so your identity isn’t exposed. If you opt to use a contact tracing app and are given a choice between GPS and Bluetooth I would highly recommend Bluetooth.

Another potential threat is fake health reports. I would hope that everyone would use contact tracing apps as intended. Unfortunately it is possible that some may provide false information and reports.

Are contact tracing apps secure? It depends on who created the app and how it is implemented. If you opt to use them I recommend to only install them from the official Google or Apple app stores.

Given the pandemic, is it safe to not implement contact tracing?

This is a very important question. Granted for contact tracing to work you need to pay a price in some of your privacy and an app may or may not be secure. Is it all worth it if it could potentially slow the spread of COVID-19? On the one hand you are losing some of your privacy. On the other hand the virus has killed over 1 million people globally. The short answer is that on a public health level, we should probably do whatever we can to stop the spread of COVID-19. I believe that it is up to each of us to decide for ourselves and weigh our own privacy vs. the threat of the virus.

Back to our original question. Is contact tracing safe? That is a very subjective question. On the surface I would say it’s pretty safe overall. They aren’t a threat to your important accounts. It’s not likely that a contact tracing app would lead to any physical danger to you. They shouldn’t break the other software on your device. On the flipside you pay some price in privacy and nothing is impossible to exploit and hack. At the end of the day, keeping all of this in mind, it is up to you to decide if it is safe to you personally or not. My opinion is that it is pretty safe overall.

Should You Disable Contact Tracing on Your Phone?

Much of this boils down to a question of privacy versus public health and safety. It is a question each of us has to answer for ourselves. Do you lose some privacy? Yes. Could contact tracing save lives? Yes. Here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros

  • Potential to slow the spread of COVID-19.
  • Good for public health.
  • When you come into close proximity of someone who is infected the app notifies you.
  • Tracing apps can help health experts and the public keep up with where potential outbreaks could take place or are taking place.

Cons

  • Loss of privacy.
  • Potential panic because of overreaction to tracing notifications.
  • Potential security flaws. I haven’t heard or read about any but it is still software and software can be exploited,
  • Not everyone will choose to use a contact tracing app anyway.

Again, it’s up to you. If you do choose to disable contact tracing the following section will show you how to do it on both Android and iPhone. It’s a similar procedure on both.

How to Disable Contact Tracing on Your Phone

For contact tracing to be active on your device you will have had to have installed a contact tracing app. Before you can turn off contact tracing you will first need to remove the app.

Android

  1. If you have installed any COVID tracking apps be sure to delete them before proceeding.
  2. Open the Settings menu.
  3. In Settings find your Google options.
  4. Tap on the “COVID-19 Exposure Notifications”.
  5. Make sure the switch in in the off position.

IPhone

  1. If you have installed any COVID tracking apps be sure to delete them before proceeding.
  2. You will find your options under either Settings > Notifications or Settings > Exposure Notifications.
  3. When you are there tap the “Health” button.
  4. Choose to delete your checks and log.

I hope at this point you have a better understanding of contact tracing and have a better idea of where you stand on whether you want contact tracing active on your device or not. On a privacy level I have issues with the idea of it but on a public health and safety level I understand the logic and can’t honestly say it’s a bad idea in the face of the pandemic that we have been dealing with for months. For that reason I have no problem with allowing it on my device. You will have to decide for yourself where you stand and what you are comfortable with.

Tech on and have the best day.

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