First published on NZ Techonverse
In these Covid-19 pandemic days in NZ and worldwide, the powers that be have had to come up with effective ways to be able to trace infected people’s personal contacts lest they also turn out to be infected with the virus. It is entirely natural that some sort of technological solution should be sought, and there are already various apps that people can install on their phones that work mainly by recording their location, as most smartphones have the ability to gather this information reasonably accurately and automatic at a rapid rate.
However for various reasons, the official NZ Government Covid tracer app does not use location data to record the user’s movements, and whilst we can understand the sensitivity of this, we believe many people will find the need for the manual steps of scanning a QR code each time they enter a premises somewhat tedious, and for those who are already technologically challenged, it could be much more difficult than an automated app. But never fear, the CovidCard is here! The CovidCard is a device about the size of a credit card (although thicker) that uses Bluetooth to automatically record when a user is in close proximity to other Covid cards and then it logs the details of the other Covid cards, but apparently it doesn’t log the location. So naturally the promoters of this card have touted it as the solution to improve upon contact tracing.
However there is one major flaw with the CovidCard and that is that it can only record other CovidCards that are near to it, and are working correctly. It can’t log any other data, not according to the description of what we have read of it. So this means that it will only record anything useful if there are other CovidCards that are in working order near it. This leaves the rather big problem that if another person has forgotten their CovidCard or its battery has gone flat, their presence will not be logged on the device. These factors make the device less than foolproof. Furthermore, just logging all contacts within 2 metres for more than 1 minute may not be enough, as not enough is really known about the spread of this virus. Whilst data fitting those parameters is certainly useful, given that there is a possibility of the virus being spreadable by surfaces over many hours from the time it was deposited, realistically it may be necessary to record contacts over several days, and from greater distances, which this device would appear unable to do.
It is much more desirable to have something that is based on an existing device the user can carry with them (i.e. a smartphone) and based on location, and we believe a user should be able to have the choice of recording their location automatically if they wish. The fact is that scanning QR codes does produce a record of the user’s location, albeit that the user does have a choice of which locations they want to have recorded. A user could actually do the same with a location recording app; they could choose which locations they would be happy to release to the powers that be. We suppose that the main challenge people will have with an app that records locations is that it could be collecting more information in the background about people’s locations. However it is also entirely possible that the NZ Government official app which purports not to collect this information could in fact be doing this. Unless you are very pedantic about making sure your location tracking is disabled in your phone and you have absolutely no need of using this information (for example in mapping or navigation software) then you probably have your phone’s location tracking enabled by default anyway; and even without it, cellphone network operators are also able to track your location by triangulating between towers and this can’t be disabled without turning your phone off or disabling cellular services, which would for most people defeat the reason they have a phone in the first place.
Now we are big fans of privacy and we do have strong objections to the ever increasing amount of data that Google collects on Android phones (their newest idea is to be able to track earthquakes and warn people using cellular device data) and the fact Google has made it impossible for users to turn off much of the Google data collection on their phones (for example we have major issues with the fact that Android phones actually, by default, have the Google Assistant installed, activated and recording every piece of audio the phone can pick up through its microphone and that Google has made this extremely difficult to defeat). However, every phone on the cellular network can be tracked as to its location because of the recording of data with each device that connects to the cellphone operator’s network and this tracking has nothing to do with Google or any app’s design. It is simply a fact of life for cellular users and applies to all phones and in theory, this data could be used for contact tracing already if a user’s phone number could be identified. So we think people should be able to choose an app that works by automatically recording their location, if they so choose. And we think that the CovidCard is not really worth the effort, and for once we agree with the government which is really questioning the merits of the CovidCar.