TORONTO -- As governments around the world turn to technology for solutions on slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, privacy experts are left asking another question: Are digital contact tracing efforts worth the privacy trade-off?

These apps, which use cellphone data to monitor people’s movements and warn them of any contact with COVID-19-positive patients, require users to opt-in and voluntarily disclose their health data.

Although experts say the developers of these apps may have admirable intentions, they say digital contact tracing has significant limitations from both an efficacy and privacy standpoint, and shed light on the risk of additional surveillance.

“After 9/11, we saw the rapid expansion of surveillance in response to a national crisis, and it quickly dawned on me that this could be a similar scenario,” Samuel Woodhams, digital rights activist at U.K. firm Top10VPN, told by phone.

“It’s something that I think that we need to be wary of, because otherwise there is a real danger that these things will be implemented and never repealed, and we'll be living in a very, very different sort of society after this all, hopefully, comes to an end.”

Woodhams has been tracking the global rollout of these apps since mid-March in an effort to shed light on initiatives that could threaten digital rights.

Of the 53 contact tracing apps available globally, Woodhams' data shows that 25 per cent have no privacy policies and 57 per cent use GPS technology over Bluetooth, allowing a greater risk for users to be tracked physically on a map.

Last week, Alberta became the first province to launch a voluntary contact tracing app, which uses the privacy preferred Bluetooth technology to track users. New Brunswick, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan are also looking at or planning on releasing similar initiatives.

These apps have been in use in other countries, including Singapore and Australia, since March.

But it remains unclear just how useful these apps are when it comes to reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Some allow users to self-diagnose their symptoms, while others rely on users to voluntarily report whether or not they have tested positive for the virus, raising questions of reliability.

But Woodhams notes that no matter how privacy focused these apps may be, they will not be a silver bullet.

“They are not going to solve the issue at hand, which is which is often missed,” he said.

When asked about the risk to Canadians’ privacy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said finding a balance between privacy protections and data gathering will be “extremely important.”

“We have a number of proposals and companies working on different models that might be applicable to Canada. But as we move forward on taking decisions, we're going to keep in mind that Canadians, put a very high value on their privacy, on their data security,” he said during a press briefing last week.

“We need to make sure we respect that, even in a time of emergency measures and significant difficulty and crisis. We're going to get that balance right.”


But apps aren’t the only area of concern when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of what this pandemic has done is shown us the kind of surveillance capabilities that a lot of democratic countries have had for a very long time,” Woodhams said.

“It’s just that they're now being implemented in a way that a lot of people will find acceptable.”

During the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, Woodhams notes that North American media outlets were quick to report on the “dystopian” surveillance measures being taken to enforce lockdowns in the region, such as drones equipped with loudspeakers that patrolled the streets.

In the months that followed, as the virus spread rapidly throughout the world, Spain, Italy and even the U.K. took similar measures with police services deploying drones to monitor the streets.

“We were seeing a lot of reports about China's approach to the virus and a lot of the reporting was essentially using this as a means of exploring China’s surveillance state,” he explained.

“I think that a lot of the time we really do underestimate the technological capabilities within democracies to surveil their own citizens.”

He notes that contact tracing apps, if voluntary, may eventually fade into obscurity when the virus starts to dissipate. But companies are already seeking to profit off of what Woodhams describes as a “surveillance creep” brought on by the pandemic.

“There is this general push of surveillance creep that I think that we need to be very on top of and document,” he said.

“Because as much as we can get bogged down with the specifics about which app may be better than another, this is a general trend in which surveillance companies are having a field day -- and they're going to try to make as much money out of this as they possibly can.”