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article imageData privacy: How private are COVID-19 apps?

By Tim Sandle     Jul 28, 2020 in Technology
While there are many mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19, there are concerns with what happens to the data. Many apps collect personal data but they fail to indicate whether the information will be secure.
A review of fifty COVID-19-related apps available in the Google Play store showed that most of the apps required access to users' personal data, but only a handful indicated the data would be anonymous, encrypted and secured. in contrast, just 16 of the apps indicated collected data will be anonymous, encrypted, secured and reported only in aggregate form.
Despite the concerns over the use of data by apps, research conducted by MHP Health considered the impact COVID-19 had on the public’s health data sharing concerns. Emergency legislation put in place by the U.K. government, as an example, opened up the sharing of patient data with any relevant health or pharmaceutical organisation, providing the purpose of sharing the data was solely for “research, protecting public health, providing healthcare services to the public and monitoring and managing the COVID-19 outbreak and incidents of exposure”. This included the operation of test and tracing apps, plus measures taken to support the discovery and development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
MHP Health polled 2,072 U.K. citizens to better understand their comfort with sharing their health data and to investigate whether the time of global crisis altered their perceptions.
While 57 percent of those surveyed said they were comfortable sharing their data with mainstream health organizations, the figure was lower with respect to pharmaceutical companies. The research found that only 26 percent of respondents were comfortable sharing their health data with the pharmaceutical industry. Furthermore, just 25 percent said they would consent to sharing their data with medical diagnostic companies. With the majority in favour of providing data to health services, this was specifically for developing new treatments and vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.
The lower standing of pharmaceutical firms demonstrates the extent that pharmaceutical companies need to continue to be open and transparent about how personal data is used and to emphasize how such data can assist with the 'public good', in terms of development of tests, vaccines and treatments for critical illnesses like COVID-19.
Confidence can be boosted if there is greater assurance that data is secure. Researchers are turning to more elaborate ways to secure data, such as the application of Kolmogorov Complexity. This which refers to quantifying the amount of randomness of a string of numbers. The relative complexity is defined as the length of the shortest computer program that can generate the string; for some strings, such as 121212121212121212121212121212, there is a short program that generates it (as it is formed from alternate 1s and 2s). However, with more complicated strings of numbers, like 37539017332840393452954329, there may not exist a program that is shorter than the length of the string itself. This creates a (theoretically) secure code.
More about Personal data, Data privacy, data security, contact tracing
 
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