Microsoft Proposes Privacy Controls for COVID-19 Contact Tracking, Tracing

As governments broaden use of digital technologies to stem pandemic, sensitive health and location data need to be protected, company says.

6 Min Read

Microsoft this week proposed a series of privacy measures that governments, public health authorities, industry stakeholders, and others should consider amid efforts to use new technologies for tracking people infected with the COVID-19 virus and for tracing people with whom they have come into contact.

The proposed measures include the need for organizations participating in these efforts to get meaningful consent from people before collecting or using their data; to have controls for protecting the data; and to ensure that any data that is collected is purely for public health purposes.

Microsoft also wants to give users control over where their data is stored and how it is shared. In addition, the company advocates minimal data collection and deletion of all data once the emergency has passed.

"Tracking individuals who are infected, tracing those with whom they have recently come into physical contact and making testing available to those contacts may play an important role in managing the next phase of COVID-19," Microsoft corporate vice president's Julie Brill and Peter Lee said in a jointly bylined blog Monday. "This requires special care, as sensitive data about our location and health status may be involved."

Microsoft is one of many companies that are currently working with local, state, national authorities, healthcare organizations, and researchers to identify ways for dealing more effectively with the pandemic.

The company already has allowed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to use a Microsoft Healthcare Bot service in connection with a CDC self-checker tool for assessing symptoms and risks related to COVID-19. Microsoft has also launched a coronavirus tracker on Bing, and is working with a biotech firm to identify specific data that could help efforts to diagnose, treat, and eventually prevent the disease.

Facebook, Google, and Apple all have similar initiatives to help various government, healthcare, and other entities battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Google and Apple, for instance, are building support into their respective mobile operating systems for Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps that will allow government healthcare authorities to alert mobile device users if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.  

"What is being proposed here is an API in both Apple and Google OS that would allow an installed app to extract specific information that maps user proximity with others who are using the same installed app via the use of Bluetooth signal," says Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra.

The idea is to let people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to voluntarily and anonymously report the diagnosis to the app, which then notify owners of other devices who might have recently been in close proximity to the individual. Users who receive the notification via the public health apps can then self-quarantine or get tested for the virus.

Facebook and Carnegie Mellon University have teamed up to launch a symptom-tracker designed to help epidemiologists track and predict the spread of the disease globally. The goal is to give Facebook users the option of self-reporting COVID-19 symptoms so health authorities can keep an eye on where the disease might be spreading, and to identify potential clusters more quickly.

Around the world, governments and healthcare organizations have begun turning to such tools to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which so far has resulted in over 39,000 deaths in the US and some 169,000 people globally.

The European Commission earlier this month unveiled a coordinated strategy for the use of mobile applications for COVID-19 related contact tracing and alerting purposes. A European Commission press release described the key role mobile applications and services can play in managing the crisis especially when it comes to decisions related to social distancing measures. "They can complement existing manual contact tracing and help interrupt the transmission chain of the virus," the Commission said.

Privacy Concerns Widen

Many others similarly view these initiatives as vital. But the enthusiasm is tinged with more than just a shade of concern over the potential privacy implications of using digital technologies for contact tracking and tracing in particular. The concerns include government's misusing the data for mass surveillance, technology companies somehow abusing it for financial gain, and exposures from data breaches and data leaks.

Companies such as Apple and Google have said they will implement precautions that will prevent government agencies from tracking iPhone and Android users via healthcare apps. And all participation in these tracking and tracing programs is completely voluntary. Even so, the mere prospect of digital tracking and tracing—especially with the help of companies with relatively poor privacy-protection records—has caused worry.

"Google and Apple both claim they will keep data anonymous by not including identifying information or location data," Morales says. "But the fact there is an API that someone could leverage the functionality in an unauthorized manner concerns me."

In a white paper earlier this month, the ACLU raised multiple questions that it said needs to be answered before governments and healthcare agencies wade into digital technologies for contact tracking and tracing. The questions include what exactly the goal is, what data is collected, who gets the data, how it gets used, and what is the lifecycle of the data.

The civil rights body identified multiple issues with some of the proposed contact tracing initiatives. For instance, it argued that data on people's locations is not accurate enough for automated tracking. The ACLU paper also noted that location information could be used to force people into quarantines and limit their travel.

Some have a distinctly dystopian view of how such tracking will play out over the next few years. "Your phone will become your digital passport," says Chris Hazelton, director of security solutions at mobile security vendor Lookout. "A user's status in tracking apps and services will be used to permit and prevent them from entering public or private spaces," he predicts.

Only users that have not been exposed could be free to travel, Hazelton says. Users that choose not to participate will be treated the same as users that have been exposed. "Users that have had exposure or have tracking apps that indicate they have been exposed will be forced to quarantine themselves." Many governments that realize the value of tracking will be reluctant to turn it off, he says.

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About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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