COVID-19 tracker apps could be the key to reopening the economy, but is your private information safe?

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Monday, October 12, 2020
Apps designed to track COVID-19 data could be the future of the US economy
Could a COVID-free pass be a thing of the future? It's a trend catching on in Europe that could one day allow you to go places and do things others can't.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A trend catching on in Europe could soon be coming to your office place or other establishments.

While the concept of issuing special passes for those who could be coronavirus-free sounds like a great way to move towards some normality in our economy, questions about its reliability and privacy are raising some concerns.

With just another app on our smartphone, the technology could be used as potential proof you don't currently have COVID-19 or display test results showing you have antibodies. Having this information at your fingertips could one day allow you to go places and do things others can't but not everyone likes the idea.

On the other hand, there is no guarantee that antibodies give you immunity, plus COVID-19 tests quickly be dated depending upon exposure.

"I think when designing these systems can be done with a key privacy-preserving way is. Let's say it is something like a QR code that you can show to demonstrate that you have been tested recently, in that you are clear that can be authenticated in the authenticity of that certificate you're presenting could be authenticated without any sort of exchange of personal information, that can be fully tokenized and it could be something that just checks: is this an authentic test," said Cameron D'Ambrosi from the digital identity firm, One World Identity.

He said the concept could be effective if the user data was secure.

"I don't think there is ever a guarantee of safety. And I think what we can do is reduce the risk," added Gustavo Gomez, CEO of the UK-based tech company Bizagi which created "CoronaPass."

The CoronaPass app is already helping get people back into the office in Europe and Gomez says the US companies he's in discussions with may be using his technology soon too.

"We just provide the platform. We decided the company doesn't have access to any data that flows through this process. We don't have any access," said Gomez.

Gomez said CornonaPass just creates a QR and that his company doesn't do the testing or hold personal health data, it only provides the tool for the validation.

"And then people do the antigen test and are negative they can generate the pass when they get to a factory. We provide the private application that enables people to quickly validate their pass," Gomez said.

Gomez equates the pass to a driver's license - proving you met standards to drive. He and tech experts say the tracking systems could eventually also be used for access to hotels, amusement parks and restaurants.

However, some wonder if companies requiring testing tracker or "immunity passport" is fair?

"The immunity passport path is riddled with challenges and problems that in many ways can have more damaging side effects than the positive outcome we like to hope," said Zac Cohen, the chief operating officer a digital ID company, Trulioo.

He said health status tracking systems could lead to discrimination.

"What if you don't have a smartphone? We have limited testing capacity, we know that. What if you aren't one of the lucky few that can afford a test to begin with? So now you can't go to work, can't go to church, you can't go to the movies, you can't shop," Cohen said.

There could be a paper version of the QR code for those who don't have smartphones but that may not be enough.

One major concern focuses on privacy and whether or not the companies will have access to health information.

"There is a significant privacy concern," Cohen stated. "We have seen in recent light data breaches in a variety of different organizations, ones that you would think can protect your information quite securely, and they are in fact unfortunately losing that information and providing access without permission."

However, if that privacy is protected, D'Ambrosi said the trackers and passports could help the economy.

"I know that there's a lot of businesses that depend not only on, you know, companies need their employees back in the workplace to be more productive but also, you know, the places that do lunch, the places that do office cleaning all of that kind of support infrastructure that really depends on people being in offices has really been hard hit by COVID-19," he explained.

The ACLU warns against the use of health tracking systems and so-called "immunity passports," saying it could harm public health because the impact of antibodies is still unknown. They also said the technology can lead to health surveillance, which would threaten privacy rights.