Tuesday 14 April, 2020

Smartphone proximity-tracking is coming, so it’s vital to think about the dangers and how to avoid them

In addition to Ross Anderson’s observations on the Light Blue Touchpaper blog, another really useful source is the briefing on the technology by Privacy International. It concludes that Bluetooth is probably the least-bad option, provides an excellent primer on the technology and comes to a rounded, careful verdict:

Bluetooth LE has the capability of being both the least intrusive of tracking technologies (based on proximity between people choosing to use the app), whilst at the same time being highly intrusive in movement and interaction tracking (because its proximity is so small, and works as broadcast), and deanonymisation will necessarily cascade as the infection continues to spread, and uptake of apps increase.

As with everything we’re seeing in the age of Covid-19, we must be highly aware of the limitations of the choices we are offered. It is also important that technical and legal safeguards around the processing and storage of data — especially when those data can be used for deanonymisation — are not bypassed or ignored in the rush to deploy technology, however well-meaning or indeed vital it may be. It’s also important to ensure that there exists a genuine need to use location tracking that is supported by the scientific evidence, given contact tracing is more effective at earlier stages of tackling pandemics.

Balancing the risks of location tracking also involves consideration of whether the apps will be effective given the down-sides. In the example of the United Kingdom, as identified by the Big Data Institute, this not only relates to adoption of the app – they estimate that over 60 per cent of the UK’s population would have to be using the app for digital contact tracing to reach enough people as they become infected. It is also essential, in their view, that people identified by the contact tracing app be promptly tested. This may require a significantly higher rate of testing that we’ve so far seen in the UK. As of March 24, UK government data shows 90,436 people have been tested in Britain (population 66.44 million) compared to more than 330,000 in South Korea (population 51.47m).

Alternatives to using Bluetooth include the use of apps collecting GPS and Wifi location data and storing everything on a central server, or government authorities going directly to telecommunications operators themselves. Despite the drawbacks of Bluetooth, some of which we’ve explored in this primer, with the use of changing UUIDs, apps only tracking other users, and opt-in of upload of localised data, it’s a far less intrusive tracking method than some alternatives.

Emphasis above is mine. The technology is not a magic bullet. But it would be useful provided that people identified by proximity-sensing are promptly tested. Evidence so far suggests that the British state is nowhere near being able to do that.

Remember that the pandemic is also providing terrific opportunities for Big Brother. Which is why any legalised use of it requires sunset clauses.

As this useful compendium site demonstrates.

The point about sunset clauses (i.e. provisions in enabling legislation) is that they enable legislatures periodically to review the continuing need for the surveillance powers. That’s why framing the crisis as a ‘war’ on the virus is so dangerous: there isn’t any logical end-point for a ‘war’ against such a pervasive and elusive adversary. And so the powers will continue to be necessary ad infinitum. We should have learned that from the “war on terror”.

Zoom Is a Nightmare. So why is everyone still using it?

Here’s a fairly routine catalogue of Zoom’s multifarious flaws. But the author does ask an important question: should we collectively impose a sunset clause on our use of Zoom? That is, should we move to something better when this crisis eases or ends?

And what would that ‘something better’ be?

Missing the office? There’s an album for that

Now this is something you’d could not make up. You can buy an album of sounds from pre-1990s offices from the Smithsonian archive. They include a manual typewriter in action (and an electric one, though I’m not sure if it’s an IBM Golfball one) and even a Coffee-break, Complete with the sounds of coffee being poured from a jug!! Sacre Bleu!

What it brings back to me is the closing scene of the film All the President’s Men – which overdubs the distant commentary on TV coverage of Nixon’s Inauguration ceremony with the sounds of the Washington Post‘s newsroom, clacking typewriters and all.

Sigh. I had an Olivetti portable typewriter once. And an IBM Golfball too, for that matter. Remind me to tell you about the Boer War sometime.

Quarantine diary — Day 24


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.