How Virus-Tracing Apps Can Impede Vulnerable Groups’ Rights 


SEATTLE, Washington — In response to COVID-19, many countries have sought to implement apps that help trace the virus. These tracing apps hope to slow the spread of COVID-19 and provide easy ways to track infected people. However, there are many human rights issues that come with these virus-tracing apps. Many of the apps may incur security and privacy violations. They also help perpetuate socio-economic inequalities and leave the poor and vulnerable at risk. Therefore, although the intent behind novel tracing technology is admirable, governments need to readjust the apps to avoid indirectly hurting vulnerable populations.

Violation of Security and Privacy

Virus tracing apps often ask for large amounts of personal information. Information can include a user’s health details, their exact locations, and interactions both in private and public spaces. Self-assessment features, present in tracing apps such as Aarogya Setu in India, also ask for extensive health data such as “international travel history, symptoms of cough, fever or breathing difficulty, as well as a family history of diabetes, hypertension and heart or lung disease”, according to U.S. News.

In addition to accessing private information, many of these tracing apps lack adequate safety measures. Risks such as government tracking, various scams, and identity theft come with the use of this technology. According to the New York Times, the virus-tracing app used in India was able to leak the precise locations of users. Additionally, the app didn’t have transparent tracing technology and failed to accurately predict potential infections.

Furthermore, once nations introduce intrusive tracking apps to the public, it is a slippery slope toward heightened governmental surveillance. Liberties such as movement, the right to gather and freedom of expression may be negatively affected both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Disadvantaged groups such as migrant workers, impoverished populations and the homeless may be left even more vulnerable under greater governmental scrutiny.

Impacts of Surveillance on Disadvantaged Groups

Government surveillance by tracing apps negatively affects disadvantaged groups. There have already been stigmatization notions that migrant workers and the homeless are spreading the virus. As virus-tracing apps spread more data on the health and movements of these groups, they may face more discrimination and blame.

Furthermore, many vulnerable groups avoid using virus-tracing apps altogether. Groups such as migrant workers and undocumented laborers risk identification, expulsion, and arrests if their personal information comes under governmental scrutiny. These are the groups that also face the most risk from COVID-19 as they often have to live in cramped housing with little access to sanitation and health services. For example, Singapore’s digitized tracking app failed because it did not capture the information of hundreds of migrant workers and did not help protect them from the virus.

Other groups such as refugees and the homeless also turn away from tracing apps from past experiences of abusive surveillance and governmental oppression. Therefore, digital tracing apps not only fail to account for vulnerable groups but also violate their rights of security and privacy.

Exposing and Increasing Inequality

Digital virus-tracing apps also exacerbate inequality. Tracing apps are often work for smartphones with Bluetooth and GPS functions. Given that most impoverished households can not afford smartphones, tracing technology excludes disadvantaged populations. According to U.S. News, only 500 million people own smartphones in India, and “less than one-tenth of the country’s population… are registered as users of [India’s tracing app]; leaving more than 90% of the population from the purview of the app”. In Latin America, approximately 52% of the population has access to mobile internet, while sub-Saharan Africa’s rate sits lower at 23%.

Refugee camps in Bangladesh suffer from government-imposed internet blackouts and large numbers of migrant workers don’t have access to mobile phones. Hence, although tracing apps seek to battle the virus, they are indirectly excluding the people who need it the most.

Safeguards and Solutions

As virus-tracing apps violate many human rights, certain safeguards can be put into place. According to Human Rights Watch, governments should first make sure virus tracing technology is scientifically justified. They can also look into expanding other virus prevention methods such as manual contact tracing and increased access to testing. Governments should also be extremely transparent about who can access personal information, how long data is stored and who has the right to use the information.

The European Union has already implemented the General Data Protection Regulation that provides app users with human rights safeguards. The regulation states that the app will not collect unnecessary information, provide transparency on the workings of the app and that the government will actively prevent violations of human rights.

Although COVID-19-tracing apps seek to fight against the virus, they inadvertently pose many human rights issues. Current virus tracing apps not only perpetuate government surveillance but also discriminate against refugees, impoverished populations, migrant workers and the homeless. Although some governments have implemented safeguards against human rights violations from virus-tracing apps, further action is needed to protect the vulnerable.

—Silvia Huang
Photo: Flickr


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