WHEN THE NOTION of enlisting smartphones to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic first surfaced last spring, it sparked a months-long debate: Should apps collect location data, which could help with contact tracing but potentially reveal sensitive information? Or should they take a more limited approach, only measuring Bluetooth-based proximity to other phones? Now, a broad survey of hundreds of Covid-related apps reveals that the answer is all of the above. And that’s made the Covid app ecosystem a kind of wild, sprawling landscape, full of potential privacy pitfalls.
Late last month Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, released the results of his analysis of 493 Covid-related iOS apps across dozens of countries. His study of those apps, which tackle everything from symptom-tracking to telehealth consultations to contact tracing, catalogs the data permissions each one requests. At WIRED’s request, Albright then broke down the data set further to focus specifically on the 359 apps that handle contact tracing, exposure notification, screening, reporting, workplace monitoring, and Covid information from public health authorities around the globe.
The results show that only 47 of that subset of 359 apps use Google and Apple’s more privacy-friendly exposure-notification system, which restricts apps to only Bluetooth data collection. More than six out of seven Covid-focused iOS apps worldwide are free to request whatever privacy permissions they want, with 59 percent asking for a user’s location when in use and 43 percent tracking location at all times. Albright found that 44 percent of Covid apps on iOS asked for access to the phone’s camera, 22 percent of apps asked for access to the user’s microphone, 32 percent asked for access to their photos, and 11 percent asked for access to their contacts.
“It’s hard to justify why a lot of these apps would need your constant location, your microphone, your photo library,” Albright says. He warns that even for Covid-tracking apps built by universities or government agencies—often at the local level—that introduces the risk that private data, sometimes linked with health information, could end up out of users’ control. “We have a bunch of different, smaller public entities that are more or less developing their own apps, sometimes with third parties. And we don’t we don’t know where the data’s going.”
The relatively low number of apps that use Google and Apple’s exposure-notification API compared to the total number of Covid apps shouldn’t be seen as a failure of the companies’ system, Albright points out. While some public health authorities have argued that collecting location data is necessary for contact tracing, Apple and Google have made clear that their protocol is intended for the specific purpose of “exposure notification”—alerting users directly to their exposure to other users who have tested positive for Covid-19. That excludes the contact tracing, symptom checking, telemedicine, and Covid information and news that other apps offer. The two tech companies have also restricted access to their system to public health authorities, which has limited its adoption by design.
But Albright’s data nonetheless shows that many US states, local governments, workplaces, and universities have opted to build their own systems for Covid tracking, screening, reporting, exposure alerts, and quarantine monitoring, perhaps in part due to Apple and Google’s narrow focus and data restrictions. Of the 18 exposure-alert apps that Albright counted in the US, 11 use Google’s and Apple’s Bluetooth system. Two of the others are based on a system called PathCheck Safeplaces, which collects GPS information but promises to anonymize users’ location data. Others, like Citizen Safepass and the CombatCOVID app used in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, ask for access to users’ location and Bluetooth proximity information without using Google’s and Apple’s privacy-restricted system. (The two Florida apps asked for permission to track the user’s location in the app itself, strangely, not in an iOS prompt.)
In a Washington Post op-ed (June 4), “5G conspiracy theories threaten the U.S. recovery,” Thomas Johnson Jr., the Federal Communications Commission’s general counsel, declared: “Conjectures about 5G’s effect on human health are long on panic and short on science.”
The FCC, however, has been “short on science” for more than two decades. Along with the World Health Organization, the FCC abdicated its responsibility to protect the public’s health from hazards associated with exposure to radio frequency, or RF, radiation. As a result, almost 400 international scientists and doctors have called for a moratorium on deployment of 5G, and 150 community groups have tried to block its rollout in the United States. Recently, the Environmental Health Trust and Children’s Health Defense, along with multiple plaintiffs, sued the FCC over its inadequate RF exposure limits and cell phone testing procedures.
The FCC relies on other agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, for health expertise. However, without a comprehensive review of all peer-reviewed science and a formal risk assessment, the FDA in a letter advised the FCC that “the available scientific evidence to date does not support adverse health effects in humans due to exposures at or under the current limits.” The letter “concluded that no changes to the current standards are warranted at this time.”
In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Senator Blumenthal “blasted” the FCC and FDA for “failing to conduct any research into the safety of 5G technology . . . and deferring to industry. . . . We’re kind of flying blind here, as far as health and safety is concerned.”
Last December, the FCC reaffirmed its obsolete RF exposure limits, ignoring critical input from more than 50 scientists, hundreds of scientific studies, and hundreds of people who have suffered illness from RF radiation.
Originally adopted in 1996, these limits were based upon a behavioral change in rats and monkeys exposed to microwave radiation and were designed to protect humans only from short-term heating risks due to RF radiation exposure.
Since 1996, the preponderance of peer-reviewed research—more than 500 studies—has found harmful biologic or health effects from RF radiation exposure at intensities too low to cause significant heating. Thus stringent exposure limits based on biological effects are needed to protect human health.
Citing this body of research, over 240 scientists who have published peer-reviewed research on the biologic and health effects of nonionizing electromagnetic fields, or EMF, signed the International EMF Scientist Appeal, which calls for stronger RF exposure limits. The signatories have published over 2,000 papers and letters on nonionizing EMF in professional journals and arguably constitute the majority of experts in this field.
The appeal proclaims:
Numerous recent scientific publications have shown that EMF affects living organisms at levels well below most international and national guidelines. Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans. Damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plant and animal life.
In 2018, a $30 million study conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program reported “clear evidence” that two years of exposure to cell phone radiation increased cancer in male rats and damaged DNA in rats and mice of both sexes. The Ramazzini Institute replicated the NTP’s key finding using much weaker cell phone radiation exposure over the rats’ lifespan.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011. We are seeing increases in head and neck tumors in cancer registries from multiple countries, which may be attributable to the proliferation of wireless device use. These increases are consistent with case-control studies that found increased tumor risk in long-term cell phone users.
Moreover, cancer is not even the most common hazard, because there is substantial scientific evidence that RF radiation causes neurological disorders and reproductive harm.
The volume of peer-reviewed scientific evidence on earlier technologies suggests that exposure to microwaves and millimeter waves used in 5G is likely harmful.
According to Johnson, “if we delay 5G deployment based on irrational fears and unproven theories, it will only hurt the American people.” But can we trust the FDA or FCC’s evaluation of the science? Should we gamble on our health and invest hundreds of billions of dollars deploying 5G, a technology that requires 800,000 new cell antenna sites installed next to our homes and workplaces? Or should we develop RF exposure standards that fully protect humans and the environment and institute a risk management system based upon a formal risk assessment?
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