Thursday 28 May 2020
Governments are stepping up to fight the pandemic. Photo: Unsplash

The pandemic has brought the world to a standstill. So as more governments are opting for COVID-19 tracking apps in the fight against the coronavirus, a massive debate between the need for public health information and privacy rights has emerged. 

The pros and cons of COVID-19 tracking apps 

The track-and-trace technology is seen as a great way to efficiently fight the pandemic and allow economies to reopen, with health authorities keeping tabs on the spread of the virus. However, many fear personal data gathered by governments or companies in the name of the coronavirus will be abused for political or commercial gain. 

According to The Washington Post, government officials across the United States of America are using location data from millions of cellphones, to better understand the movements of the public during the pandemic and how they may be affecting the spread of the disease.

travelling during covid-19
Getting the public to obey lockdown laws. Photo: Unsplash


The data highlights which retail establishments, parks and other public spaces are still drawing crowds that could risk the spread of the virus. In one such case, researchers found that New Yorkers were gathering in large numbers in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and handed that information over to local authorities. 

However, concerns surrounding data safety was brought to light after the government was able to get data from mobile advertising companies rather than local telecom providers, because telecoms’ use of data is highly regulated as compared to advertising companies. To add fuel to fire, the COVID-19 tracking in the US kicked in without the consent of the public. 

Voluntary vs mandatory

Asian countries, first hit by the pandemic, have also led the way with COVID-19 tracing apps, often on a non-voluntary basis. China released several apps using either geolocation via mobile networks or data compiled from train and airline travel or motorway checkpoints. 

Meanwhile, South Korea issued mass mobile phone alerts announcing locations visited by infected patients and ordered anyone placed in quarantine to install a tracking app. As for Thailand, people scanned barcodes when they visited a restaurant or a store. Next, if someone who later tests positive goes to the same place, everyone else will receive an alert and a free coronavirus test.

eating out with covid-19 tracking apps
Tracking apps can be useful to keep the public aware of coronavirus hot spots. Photo: Unsplash


But one major problem has curbed the efficiency of the process – the government, having already gathered vast amounts of information on millions of app users, has had to concede that the alert function does not work. So are these COVID-19 tracking apps an essential part of fighting the pandemic? 

Yes, because the use of technology can be a great asset to monitor public movements, which is a crucial aspect of curbing the spread of the virus. However, governments must ensure data collection is ethically carried out, with proper disclosures on how these apps are used. 

Source: The Washington Post, The Verge, AFP Relaxnews