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Here come COVID-19 tracing apps – and privacy trade-offs

Inside Telecom Staff

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Here come COVID-19 tracing apps - and privacy trade-offs
This April 28, 2020, photo shows a smartphone app built for the state of Utah displaying coronavirus test sites. The app tracks symptoms and shares location data for contact tracing, the process of determining who might have been exposed to the virus. The app is “a tool to help jog the memory of the person who is positive so we can more readily identify where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with, if they choose to allow that,†said Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist. (AP Photo/Lindsay Whitehurst)

By MATT O’BRIEN and CHRISTINA LARSON Associated Press

As governments around the world consider how to monitor new coronavirus outbreaks while reopening their societies, many are starting to bet on smartphone apps to help stanch the pandemic.

But their decisions on which technologies to use — and how far those allow authorities to peer into private lives — are highlighting some uncomfortable trade-offs between protecting privacy and public health.

“There are conflicting interests,” said Tina White, a Stanford University researcher who first introduced a privacy-protecting approach in February. “Governments and public health (agencies) want to be able to track people” to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but people are less likely to download a voluntary app if it is intrusive, she said.

Containing infectious disease outbreaks boils down to a simple mantra: test, trace and isolate. Today, that means identifying people who test positive for the novel coronavirus, tracking down others they might have infected, and preventing further spread by quarantining everyone who might be contagious.

That second step requires an army of healthcare workers to question coronavirus carriers about recent contacts so those people can be tested and potentially isolated.

Smartphone apps could speed up that process by collecting data about your movements and alerting you if you’ve spent time near a confirmed coronavirus carrier. The more detailed that data, the more it could help regional governments identify and contain emerging disease “hot spots.” But data collected by governments can also be abused by governments — or their private-sector partners.

Some countries and local governments are issuing voluntary government-designed apps that make information directly available to public health authorities.

In Australia, more than 3 million people have downloaded COVIDSafe, an app touted by the prime minister, who compared it to the ease of applying sunscreen and said more app downloads would bring about a “more liberated economy and society.” Utah is the first U.S. state to embrace a similar approach with an app called Healthy Together, developed by a social media startup previously focused on helping young people hang out with nearby friends.

Both these apps record a digital trail of the strangers an individual encountered. Utah’s goes even further, using a device’s location to help track which restaurants or stores a user has visited.

The app is “a tool to help jog the memory of the person who is positive so we can more readily identify where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with, if they choose to allow that,” said Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist.

A competing approach under development by tech giants Apple and Google limits the information collected and anonymizes what it pulls in so that such personalized tracking isn’t possible.

Apple and Google have pushed for public health agencies to adopt their privacy-oriented model, offering an app-building interface they say will work smoothly on billions of phones when the software rolls out sometime in May. Germany and a growing number of European countries have aligned with that approach, while others, such as France and the UK, have argued for more government access to app data.

Most coronavirus-tracking apps rely on Bluetooth, a decades-old short-range wireless technology, to locate other phones nearby that are running the same app.

The Bluetooth apps keep a temporary record of the signals they encounter. If one person using the app is later confirmed to have COVID-19, public health authorities can use that stored data to identify and notify other people who may have been exposed.

Apple and Google say that apps built to their specifications will work across most iPhones and Android devices, eliminating compatibility problems. They have also forbidden governments to make their apps compulsory and are building in privacy protections to keep stored data out of government and corporate hands and ease concerns about surveillance.

For instance, these apps rely on encrypted “peer to peer” signals sent from phone to phone; these aren’t stored in government databases and are designed to conceal individual identities and connections. Public-health officials aren’t even in the loop; these apps would notify users directly of their possible exposure and urge them to get tested.

In the U.S., developers are pitching their apps directly to state and local governments. In Utah, the social media company Twenty sold state officials on an approach combining Bluetooth with satellite-based GPS signals. That would let trained health workers help connect the dots and discover previously hidden clusters of infection.

“It’s unlikely that automated alerts are going to be enough,” said Jared Allgood, Twenty’s chief strategy officer and a Utah resident, citing estimates that the peer-to-peer models would need most people participating to be effective.

North and South Dakota are pursuing a similar model after a local startup repurposed its existing Bison Tracker app, originally designed to connect fans of North Dakota State University’s athletic teams.

Regardless of the approach, none of these apps will be effective at breaking chains of viral infections unless countries like the U.S. can ramp up coronavirus testing and hire more health workers to do manual outreach.

Another big limitation: many people, particularly in vulnerable populations, don’t carry smartphones.

In Singapore, for instance, a large migrant worker population lives in cramped dorms, makes about $15 a day, and powers the city’s previously booming construction industry — but smartphone usage in this group is low. When the Southeast Asian city-state launched its app TraceTogether in March, total confirmed COVID-19 cases were well under 1,000. Then in early April, a rash of new infections in worker dormitories pushed that number to more than 18,000, triggering new lockdown policies.

“If we can find a way to automate some of the detective work with technology, I think that would be a significant help,” said Nadia Abuelezam, a disease researcher at Boston College. “It won’t be all we need.”


AP writers Zen Soo in Hong Kong; Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia; Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City, Utah; Kelvin Chan in London; James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota; and Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, contributed to this report.

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Intel to sell NAND business to SKorean rival for $9 billion

Inside Telecom Staff

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SKorean

Intel has agreed to a $9 billion deal to sell most of its memory business to South Korea’s SK Hynix as it moves toward more diverse technologies while shedding a major Chinese factory at a time of deepening trade friction between Washington and Beijing.

Intel said it will keep its “Optane” business of more advanced memory products, which analysts say are mostly produced in the United States.

According to the plan confirmed by the companies on Tuesday, SK Hynix will acquire Intel’s NAND memory chip and storage business, including a related manufacturing site in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian. SK Hynix said the companies expect to get required governmental approvals for the deal by late 2021.

The transaction, if completed, could reportedly make SK Hynix the world’s second-largest provider of NAND flash memory chips behind Samsung Electronics, another South Korean chip giant.

Demand for flash memory has strengthened in recent months due to buying of personal computers and servers as the coronavirus pandemic forces millions to work from home.

Intel said it plans to invest proceeds from the transaction into advancing long-growth priorities, including technologies related to artificial intelligence and fifth-generation wireless networks.

“This transaction will allow us to further prioritize our investments in differentiated technology where we can play a bigger role in the success of our customers and deliver attractive returns to our stockholders,” Bob Swan, Intel’s CEO, said in a statement.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP).

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Is Facebook really ready for the 2020 election?

Inside Telecom Staff

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Ever since Russian agents and other opportunists abused its platform in an attempt to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has insisted — repeatedly — that it’s learned its lesson and is no longer a conduit for misinformation, voter suppression and election disruption.

But it has been a long and halting journey for the social network. Critical outsiders, as well as some of Facebook’s own employees, say the company’s efforts to revise its rules and tighten its safeguards remain wholly insufficient to the task, despite it having spent billions on the project. As for why, they point to the company’s persistent unwillingness to act decisively over much of that time.

“Am I concerned about the election? I’m terrified,” said Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and an early Facebook investor turned vocal critic. “At the company’s current scale, it’s a clear and present danger to democracy and national security.”

The company’s rhetoric has certainly gotten an update. CEO Mark Zuckerberg now casually references possible outcomes that were unimaginable in 2016 — among them, possible civil unrest and potentially a disputed election that Facebook could easily make even worse — as challenges the platform now faces.

“This election is not going to be business as usual,” Zuckerberg wrote in a September Facebook post in which he outlined Facebook’s efforts to encourage voting and remove misinformation from its service. “We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.”

Yet for years Facebook executives have seemed to be caught off guard whenever their platform — created to connect the world — was used for malicious purposes. Zuckerberg has offered multiple apologies over the years, as if no one could have predicted that people would use Facebook to live-stream murders and suicides, incite ethnic cleansings, promote fake cancer cures or attempt to steal elections.

While other platforms like Twitter and YouTube have also struggled to address misinformation and hateful content, Facebook stands apart for its reach and scale and, compared to many other platforms, its slower response to the challenges identified in 2016.

In the immediate aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election, Zuckerberg offered a remarkably tone-deaf quip regarding the notion that “fake news” spread on Facebook could have influenced the 2016 election, calling it “a pretty crazy idea.” A week later, he walked back the comment.

Since then, Facebook has issued a stream of mea culpas for its slowness to act against threats to the 2016 election and promised to do better. “I don’t think they have become better at listening,” said David Kirkpatrick, author of a book on Facebook’s rise. “What’s changed is more people have been telling them they need to do something.”

The company has hired outside fact-checkers, added restrictions — then more restrictions — on political advertisements and taken down thousands of accounts, pages and groups it found to be engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” That’s Facebook’s term for fake accounts and groups that maliciously target political discourse in countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe.

It’s also started added warning labels to posts that contain misinformation about voting and has, at times, taken steps to limit the circulation of misleading posts. In recent weeks the platform also banned posts that deny the Holocaust and joined Twitter in limiting the spread of an unverified political story about Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, published by the conservative New York Post.

All this unquestionably puts Facebook in a better position than it was in four years ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s fully prepared. Despite tightened rules banning them, violent militias are still using the platform to organize. Recently, this included a foiled plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

In the four years since the last election, Facebook’s earnings and user growth have soared. This year, analysts expect the company to rake in profits of $23.2 billion on revenue of $80 billion, according to FactSet. It currently boasts 2.7 billion users worldwide, up from 1.8 billion at this time in 2016.

Facebook faces a number of government investigations into its size and market power, including an antitrust probe by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. An earlier FTC investigation socked Facebook with a large $5 billion fine, but didn’t require any additional changes.

“Their No. 1 priority is growth, not reducing harm,” Kirkpatrick said. “And that is unlikely to change.”

Part of the problem: Zuckerberg maintains an iron grip on the company, yet doesn’t take criticism of him or his creation seriously, charges social media expert Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor. But the public knows what’s going on, they said. “They see COVID misinformation. They see how Donald Trump exploits it. They can’t unsee it.”

Facebook insists it takes the challenge of misinformation seriously — especially when it comes to the election.

“Elections have changed since 2016, and so has Facebook,” the company said in a statement laying out its policies on the election and voting. “We have more people and better technology to protect our platforms, and we’ve improved our content policies and enforcement.”

Grygiel says such comments are par for the course: “This company uses PR in place of an ethical business model.”

Kirkpatrick notes that board members and executives who have pushed back against the CEO — a group that includes the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp — have left the company.

“He is so certain that Facebook’s overall impact on the world is positive” and that critics don’t give him enough credit for that, Kirkpatrick said of Zuckerberg. As a result, the Facebook CEO isn’t inclined to take constructive feedback. “He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. He has no oversight,” Kirkpatrick said.

The federal government has so far left Facebook to its own devices, a lack of accountability that has only empowered the company, according to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who grilled Zuckerberg during a July Capitol Hill hearing.

Warning labels are of limited value if the algorithms underlying the platform are designed to push polarizing material at users, she said. “I think Facebook has done some things that indicate it understands its role. But it has been, in my opinion, far too little, too late.”

By BARBARA ORTUTAY and DAVID KLEPPER Associated Press.

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UK Space Agency backs medical drone delivery project

Inside Telecom Staff

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A medical drone delivery service founded by trainee doctors that aims to transport coronavirus samples, test kits and protective equipment between hospitals has won the backing of Britain’s Space Agency.

The start-up project can help free up healthcare staff, avoid courier waiting times and minimize the risk of virus transmission, authorities said Saturday.

Trainee doctors Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law are trialing “dronepad” infrastructure so the miniature aircraft can take off from and land on hospitals, laboratories and warehouses. They are planning to scale up the trials and set up a nationwide network of secure air corridors to enable the drone delivery service to work safely across National Health Service sites.

The hybrid drones — which have the rotors of a typical drone and the wings of a plane — can carry a maximum of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) and fly about 60 miles (96 kilometers.)

The drone project is among others set to share 1.3 million pounds ($1.7 million) of funding from the U.K. Space Agency and the European Space Agency to businesses developing space-based solutions for challenges created by Covid-19.

LONDON (AP).

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