In brief

  • Researchers in Spain are developing an app that gathers health data and tracks the spread of the novel coronavirus.
  • The app is also designed to give data to governments to ensure compliance with quarantines.
  • Privacy experts are increasingly raising concerns about the long-term effects of governments' response to coronavirus.

Companies and researchers are increasingly turning to blockchain technology in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. But concerns about how this fight affects privacy and civil liberties are rising.

In Spain, researchers from the Institute of Biomedical Research of Salamanca, the University of Salamanca, and the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute are now working to track the “evolution” of the novel coronavirus using a new app built on AI and blockchain.

Juan Manuel Corchado and Javier Prieto lead the team behind the project and explained in an interview with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers that they aim to provide vital information to doctors and other health professionals around the world to help them battle COVID-19. At the same time, the app is designed to help governments enforce social distancing, lockdowns, and other mandates.

The app will create digital identities for individuals. These users can then sign into the app using these identities and garner private keys that act as licenses that permit them to perform “essential tasks,” as defined by a given jurisdiction, while remaining compliant with social distancing regulations.

“By providing people with an app, we are trying to guarantee that they comply with quarantine rules imposed by the government,” Corchado and Prieto told the IEEE. “Each user is associated with a digital identity and can sign in with a private key to access a certificate. These certificates will allow citizens to go grocery shopping or go to work.”

The product is in line with the direction of global organizations such as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations, which have long touted the idea of digital IDs for everyone. The growing pandemic has only boosted this argument, but privacy experts and civil libertarians say that this practice gives rise to several questions, including how governments and other bodies plan to use these IDs and what control they can enforce over populations.

Among the companies looking to bring coronavirus tracking apps to the market include Google and Apple. Both are working on a joint project designed to monitor the spread of the virus. Should a user ever come into contact with someone who’s been infected or tested positive for COVID-19, the app will see to it that they get an alert on their phone.

Despite promises of privacy from both companies, some are ringing alarm bells. Jaap-Henk Hoepman, an associate professor of computer science at Radboud University, recently said in a column that this could turn people’s smartphones into the ultimate surveillance tools, and could be utilized to monitor people’s habits and behaviors even after the pandemic is over.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) cite medical data as some of the most sensitive in the world, and suggest the digitization of medical records, while capable of revolutionizing healthcare, could pose serious “ramifications” to our privacy. With regard to the government response to coronavirus specifically, the EFF has cautioned against the increasing use of surveillance technology.

“Governments around the world are demanding extraordinary new surveillance powers intended to contain the virus’ spread, often in partnership with corporations that hold vast stores of consumers’ personal data,” the data privacy organization wrote. “Many proposals would invade our privacy, deter our free speech, and disparately burden vulnerable groups of people.”

It’s unclear how the app being developed by the group of Spanish researchers addresses confidentiality and data privacy.

At the moment, the researchers said in their interview that the principal challenge the team is facing is the lack of reliable data from other nations discussing how the virus could spread. The app is still only in the proof-of-concept phase, and the team is also looking for additional funding to help bring it to market faster.