How trustworthy are COVIDWISE and other COVID-19 contact tracing apps?

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Smartphone apps track a lot of data to provide users with the best experience.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing apps in particular have grown in popularity as a way to monitor potential new cases.

The concern of some; however, wonders how reliable these tracing apps are for securing private information.

A Virginia-based team set out to investigate and debunk these supposed risks.

“I understand the confusion and fear surrounding contact tracing,” said Dafeng Yao, a computer science professor at Virginia Tech. “Because the easiest way to do that would be to collect user information and send it to a central authority for analysis. But today’s technology is much smarter.

Yao, along with five other researchers, focused his study on the Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDWISE app.

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They started by testing the app, on Apple and Android devices, through a series of real-world scenarios.

While moving from situations with the fewest risk factors to the most, the team was able to assess the risk to user privacy at each threat level.

The conclusions were as follows:

  • In the first four scenarios, which covered people’s everyday experiences like passing someone on a sidewalk, no privacy leaks were found.

  • In the last two scenarios, there were privacy risks, but several security mechanisms had to be circumvented for a successful attack.

  • No central server keeps track of who is talking to whom

“There are easier ways to profile someone’s movements,” Yao said. “You can just hire spies!”

With continued appearances of new variants of COVID-19, adopting larger-scale contact-tracing apps could prove useful in mitigating the spread, the team says.

This study, supported by the Commonwealth Cyber ​​Initiative, is expected to be published by the IEEE Computer Society in February.

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