COVID-19 Pandemic Puts Privacy at CrossroadsCryptologist Vanessa Teague Says It's Possible to Trace Contacts and Respect Privacy
Using location data to warn people who have come in contact with those infected with COVID-19 holds promise to stem a deadly pandemic. Several countries, including China, Taiwan, Israel, South Korea and Singapore, have launched systems leveraging mobile phone data for public health benefits, and others, including Great Britain and Australia, are considering it (see: Coronavirus: UK Government Promises App for Contact Tracing).
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But many worry the systems could jeopardize privacy and may lead to all-encompassing surveillance.
It's possible to develop a contacts tracing system that protects the personal data of those infected with the virus and those who have been around them, says Vanessa Teague, a Melbourne-based cryptologist and CEO of Thinking Cybersecurity.
Proximity-based location technology, such as Bluetooth, can ensure that precise location data isn't revealed while enabling an effective warning tool by knowing where people have been in close contact, Teague says. Also, it would be possible to do that so that a government couldn't identify people, either, she says.
But maximizing privacy could also deprive government of a means to reach out to people and deliver important messages if someone has been exposed, she says. There's also a question of whether such a system should be mandated by a government or voluntary.
"You could imagine some kind of a hybrid system, for example, where you might volunteer to notify an epidemiologist or the Department of Health if you found that you had been exposed," Teague says. "Maybe in the end, more people would take it up if they felt they weren't compelled to reveal certain kinds of information."
In this video interview with Information Security Media Group, Teague discusses:
- What the privacy risks are around contacts tracing;
- Key technical design points that could help a Bluetooth-based system maximize privacy for users;
- Why there doesn't necessarily have to be a tradeoff between pervasive surveillance and battling COVID-19 with data.
Teague is a cryptologist with expertise in e-voting and privacy. Until recently, she was an associate professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. She has launched Thinking Cybersecurity, which is looking at software systems for promoting interest in parliamentary processes.