How to transfer data to fight COVID-19 without losing privacy

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Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, work has been done to find a vaccine that prevents the virus from spreading. At the moment it does not seem that its development will take less than a year. The measures of population confinement and economic paralysis cannot be maintained during all that time.

For this reason, governments are studying ways to ease confinement without jeopardizing the necessary control of the pandemic. It is proposed to monitor the antibodies and the temperature of the citizens, as well as to register their movements in order to identify those who can transmit the virus. The intention is that healthy and immune citizens rejoin their daily lives as soon as possible.

The German government, for example, plans to issue immunity certificates to those who have developed antibodies against the virus. In turn, researchers at the University of Oxford propose the geolocation of citizens to track those who are infected and confine them to their homes. Something similar has just been proposed by various scientists in the journal Science.

Share data, but not in any way

The fight against the coronavirus is leaving in the background the effects that geolocation methods may have on the privacy of citizens and the confidentiality of their data, in addition to the associated legality issues.

However, there is no doubt that, in the current phase of the pandemic, sharing information on the health and displacement of citizens will help curb infections. This opens a social and political debate about what information should be shared and how it should be done.

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At this turning point, we can either continue to share our data without being very aware of who we are transferring it to and for what purposes it will analyze it, or we become aware of the importance of our data (data awareness) and redesign the way we share them and generate information from them.

The first option takes us one-step further in what some authors call surveillance capitalism by allowing large corporations and governments to control our movements and relationships. But if we choose the second option and develop that data awareness, appreciating the value they have to curb a pandemic like COVID-19, we can generate value without giving up our privacy.

Technologies that guarantee privacy

However, it is not enough to develop a data awareness. You need to have the right technology. Technologies based on zero knowledge tests (Zero-Knowledge Proofs or ZKP) are very useful for that purpose, since they make it possible to share information without giving up privacy.

ZKPs are a cryptographic mechanism that allows us to transfer certain attributes on some of our data, but without revealing the data itself. In addition, they guarantee whoever receives the information that it is correct.

These technologies allow, therefore, to share certain information without the need to share the data (some sensitive) that generate it. For example, they allow a citizen to report that he is of legal age, but without revealing how old he is.

Use of the ZKP in the current COVID-19 crisis

In the face of doubts raised by governments about a relaxation of confinement, ZKP technology could be useful. It would allow citizens to release certain useful information, but without revealing the most private aspects of the data that supports it.

For example, an individual could use the geolocation data of their mobile phone to demonstrate that they have not been in contact with anyone infected with coronavirus, but without having to reveal that person’s name. Similarly, it could demonstrate that it has not been in any contagion risk zone, but without specifying where it has actually been.

Governments are committed to using citizens’ data to slow the advance of COVID-19, but we must pay attention to the effect it may have on our rights and freedoms.

It is time for citizens, governments and companies to develop a data awareness and explore the possibilities of ZKP technology so that it is possible to generate the necessary information to fight the pandemic, while respecting our privacy. This would represent a social innovation that goes beyond the fight against COVID-19.

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