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Exclusive: Rahul Jha speaks about reality and future of contact tracing in a COVID-19 battling world

Open-sourcing the Aarogya Setu app is a step in the right direction to earn public trust and address the international community’s concerns about data integrity and privacy, said Rahul Jha

Exclusive Rahul Jha speaks about reality and future of contact tracing in a COVID 19 battling world
Bengaluru, First Published Jun 5, 2020, 12:14 PM IST
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A term that has attracted a lot of attention during the coronavirus pandemic is ‘Contact Tracing’ - process of finding out who the COVID-19 infected person has been in contact with (15 minutes or more at a distance of 2 meters or less) during a certain period of time, as the health authorities around the world try to estimate and contain the infection spread. The infected suspects are then advised to self-quarantine for 2 weeks to avoid the spread of the disease further.

In an exclusive interview with Asianet Newsable, Rahul Jha, an Indian Programme Officer in the United Nations lead agency for Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) – International Telecommunication Union in the General Secretariat, didn’t duck the posers and faced the volley of questions put in by Asianet Newsable with ease on various issues viz. Contact Tracing – Privacy v/s Public Health Safety Trade off, spread of COVID-19 and Aarogya Setu App etc. from Geneva (Switzerland). The presence of the permanent missions of the countries and the United Nations especially ensures that all 200+ countries of the world have some sort of representation in Geneva.

Jha has been a part of the team organising one of the oldest running tech conferences (since 1971) called ITU WORLD – an annual flagship event taking place on a rotation basis in different regions of the world. He forged new and maintained existing partnerships with private and public entities from ITU member states in the Asian/American region. He helped conceptualise and promote SME Programme and Global Awards to various stakeholders through participation in major ITU events. He also managed and coordinated the United Nations Volunteer Programme for ITU in addition to his membership to the Green Task Force and Emergency Communications Roster. He is also running the ITU Digital Industry Awards Programme.

Don’t you think that contact tracing is one of the temporary measures to track the spread of COVID-19?

The origin of contact tracing lies in the early 80s during the HIV/AIDS crisis when health authorities would meticulously trace the sexual history of HIV Infected persons (through 1-1 interviews mostly) to track and stop the spread of HIV AIDS. Contact tracing seems to be the digital era equivalent of this one-time labour-intensive job. It is important to keep in mind that contact tracing is supposed to be one of the temporary measures to track the spread of the disease in the interest of public health - as no existing legal framework exists in most countries to legitimise such a large scale app enabled surveillance.

Switzerland is one of the few countries that never entered a complete lockdown. Why?

Adherence of the general population to the recommended practices such as social distancing, staying at shelter etc. greatly determine the implementation of additional measures by the authority. For instance, Swiss Telcosheat map data showed that the majority of the Swiss population indeed respected the social distancing measures put in place, and therefore it is one of the few countries that never entered a complete lockdown.

Isn’t contact tracing a very labour-intensive process and may render useless in large scale gatherings?

Contact tracing is a very labour-intensive process (as is evident from California’s plan to hire and train 20,000 contact tracers) and may render useless in large scale gatherings before app penetration hits the threshold downloads. Learnings from the past few months indicate that religious gatherings, protests, and disinformation are the 3 causes of large-scale gatherings and therefore need to be monitored closely. South Korea had a surge in the Covid-19 cases due to a religious gathering while in India, the inter-state lack of coordination combined with disinformation led to an assemblage of thousands of migrant workers in Mumbai, Delhi at the peak of the pandemic containment timeline. The ongoing protests in the United States following the custodial death of a black American man George Floyd has led to a nationwide gathering of protestors and physical distancing is the last thing in the mind of these passionate protesters as they voice their opinion against the systemic injustice against people of colour.

So, you think the onus is only on the government to be transparent during these trying times? What about the general public?

It is not just the government that needs to be transparent during these trying times, but there is a general level of honesty and openness that is expected from the citizens themselves. There have been multiple instances of citizens lying or hiding their past travel history or their contact coordinates which led governments to take a more hard-lined approach to personal data collection. Case in point is South Korea where they will enforce a mandatory QR code scanning to enter business institutions starting from 10 June. The decision to trial this novel approach came after authorities struggled to trace people in the nightclub outbreak because much of the information on handwritten visitor logs was found to be false or incomplete. In case of India, it was discovered that inbound travellers at Hyderabad airport took paracetamol to lower their body temperature to avoid the inconvenience of quarantine should their temperature be elevated.

What about temporarily violating the privacy laws for the larger good? Can you please elaborate?

The question really – is whether we are entering an irreversible change when it comes to temporarily violating the privacy laws for the larger good. Different countries and enterprises are approaching this trade-off between privacy and contact tracing differently. The famous author and historian, Yuval Noah Harari, warned the global community at the beginning of the pandemic about how “temporary measures taken during a state of emergency” could remain embedded long after the pandemic is over, largely due to the hunger for data governments around the world seem to have. A steady stream of data that could empower governments to govern more assertively with the insights and intelligence that the big data provides is a strong motive to retain these temporary measures. Only time will tell whether these measures will be rolled back in different countries. I could anticipate a global monitoring dashboard of these temporary measures’ reversal in post pandemic times. One such example is the MIT Technology Review COVID Tracing Tracker that tracks the following questions about the contact tracing app(s): A. Is it voluntary? B. Are there limitations on how the data gets used? C. Will data be destroyed after a period of time? D. Is data collection minimised? E. Is the effort transparent? Countries that have scored high in these parameters are Czech Republic, Singapore, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Iceland, and Israel.

There’s been an uncoordinated approach to contact-tracing apps taken by various countries. What’s your take on the issue?

Indeed, there has been an uncoordinated approach to contact-tracing apps taken by various countries and a lack of leadership from the EU on the issue. The lack of one system for contact tracing has a direct impact on the border control relaxation in the EU. “After all our efforts it is a pity... If you had one system that worked everywhere then maybe Europe would be able to open up the borders more quickly this summer,” said Aymeril Hoang, a tech expert who has advised the French authorities on their app.

Why did countries like France, UK, and Norway place their bets on homegrown technologies?

Around mid-April, when Apple and Google jointly announced their intention to launch a system to support contact tracing, it was met with a hope that this duopoly, that covers ~100% of global smartphone platforms, would succeed in implementing a standardised approach to contact tracing at scale. However, different approaches to privacy laws, combined with a need for access to and control of citizens’ data, have led to a fragmented approach to contact tracing in the EU. Separately, the Swiss proximity tracking system is currently being tested in a pilot phase on a few select groups of people. While Switzerland launched the world’s first app based on Google-Apple contact tracing technology, countries like France, UK, and Norway placed their bets on homegrown technologies.

Global standardisation establishing organisations are critical to ensure interoperability and compatibility of different systems. Why?

Yes, global standardisation establishing organisations such as ITU, ISO or IEC are critical to ensure interoperability and compatibility of different systems and processes to foster seamless coordination and collaboration across different actors, states, and enterprises. The ITU has been quite active in highlighting the role of ICT actors in supporting the response to the ongoing public health crisis. A recent ITU webinar focused on contact tracing in the EU context. The webinar highlighted the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity (PEPP-PT) initiative that intends not only to be GDPR compliant but also to steer away from any personal data exchange. Thomas Wiegand, Professor at the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute and Chair of ITU’s Artificial Intelligence for Health Focus Group, said that the institute would publish the protocol very soon and would potentially make related proposals as part of the ITU standardization process.

Do you think that open-sourcing the Aarogya Setu app is a step in the right direction to earn public trust?

Outside of the EU, the Government of India launched Aarogya Setu - an app that reached the 100 million downloads milestone in the shortest span of 40 days. It was also in the news for privacy concerns due to the mandatory installation of the app for all government employees and for travel purposes. There seems to be a lack of clarity on the law that serves as a legal basis for mandating such provision. Not downloading the app could invite a jail sentence of 6 months. The Government of India recently open-sourced the Aarogya Setu app as their response to the growing privacy concerns, which is a step in the right direction to earn public trust and address some of the international community’s concerns about data integrity and privacy. Open-sourcing the app enables the cyber security experts and others to audit the codes of the app to highlight any security vulnerability, if found.

Isn’t it that the advanced technological tools facilitate contract tracing, but they raise questions of privacy at the same time?

It is important to note that these are unforeseen circumstances and the key to containing the spread of the pandemic is the rapid implementation of mitigative measures such as contact tracing. There may not always be a legal basis for the roll out of the mitigative measures. While the advanced technological tools we have today facilitate contract tracing, they raise questions of privacy at the same time. The onus lies on governments to communicate to their citizens about the rationale for rolling out any policy changes including how these measures facilitate a pandemic response and not any other ulterior motives. And when governments fail to do so, digital activism will be an important tool in the global arsenal to ensure accountability and transparency of these temporary measures as well as ensuring that these are revoked in the post pandemic period.

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