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Be Extra Cautious With Contact Tracing Apps

As with nearly all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s still so much we don’t know about effective contact tracing. At this point, contact tracing apps have to collect a lot of information about you and share it with other organizations. That’s not conspiratorial paranoia; collecting and sharing your information is exactly what these apps are supposed to do. The problem is, it will be hard to know exactly how these companies are storing and using that data.

For example, Jumbo Privacy recently found that North Dakota’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, Care19, shares user data with Google, Foursquare, and other companies. This is in direct conflict with the app’s original privacy policy, which claimed the app would not share data without the user’s consent. Care19 Developer Proud Crowd updated its privacy statement in response to Jumbo Security’s findings, but we’ll probably see more stories like this going forward.

Proud Crowd provided a statement to Fast Company to explain itself:

“The Care19 application user interface clearly calls out the usage of Foursquare on our ‘Nearby Places’ screen, per the terms of our Foursquare agreement. However, our privacy policy does not currently explicitly mention this usage. We will be working with our state partners to be more explicit in our privacy policy. It is important to note that our agreement with Foursquare does not allow them to collect Care19 data or use it in any form, beyond simply determining nearby businesses and returning that to us.”

While that sounds good on paper—so much so that Jumbo Privacy might even revise its “don’t use this app” recommendation—this whole ordeal is a great reminder that your relying on trust for how your location data could be used by these apps. They might be designed to perform a task that, by nature, keeps you safe and happy, but that doesn’t mean they should all get a free pass on your device. It’s absolutely possible that those creating them will muck everything up, and that has plenty of privacy implications.

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You could also use a tracker-blocking app like Jumbo Pro or revoke certain app’s permissions, but preventing contact-tracing apps from tracking all data defeats the purpose. You might as well just not install them if you want to prevent any possibility of your information being shared, sold, or leaked.

Whatever your personal stance on installing these apps, we urge you to give any contact-tracing app you’re considering a bit of thought before you take the plunge. Do your research and see if it’s doing an effective job of balancing user privacy against the larger societal need (at this moment, at least) of recording where people have been so you, or others, can be better-informed about potential COVID-19 exposures.

Or don’t install an app at all. The analog method of contact tracing, difficult as it is to do, works well enough, and you don’t have to potentially surrender your location to companies with advertising interests to benefit from it.

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