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Personal location data - what lesson has the Covid-19 taught us?

The Israeli Ministry of Health recently launched an app called Hamagen (The protector “המגן”). This app is designed to help fight the spread of the Coronavirus. The app uses the sensors that are available on every mobile device, to alert its owners when he or she is close to an authenticated Coronavirus patient since this means that their chance of infection is high and they should go into isolation. If the cross-validation returns a positive response, a message is sent to the individual, and he or she should take precautionary steps accordingly.

The Ministry of Health deserves compliments on three aspects:

  1. Efficiency - A government office managed to release an app that works well in a very short time.

  2. Transparency - the app uses an open-source code - meaning everyone can access it and understand how the app really works.

  3. Privacy - the mobile device manages all operations and private information is not uploaded to the server.

When examining the code, we learnt that there is no upload of location information to the server. The way the app works is, after downloading anonymously verified patients' data from the Ministry of Health servers, it cross-validates this data with the individual's actual location history that exists on the cellphone. Only if the answer is positive is the individual notified on the private mobile device through the app. All processing including cross-validation with the Ministry of Health data is done on the client-side (that means on the individual's cellphone) thus ensuring minimal potential privacy violation.

Is “Hamagen” groundbreaking?

Whether you’ve realized it by now or not, we gave up our privacy long ago. Google creates a timeline of all the places and activities of almost every user every day. Facebook knows our location and uses it as a huge advertising engine for anyone who is willing to pay for it. 10-15 years ago, the power was held by these private companies but in recent years the swing has shifted towards the public, mainly due to the assistance of a regulator who intervenes in the public interest. The interventions range from new regulations such as GDPR to penalties for misuse of personal data.

The “Hamagen” raises to the surface a sensitive issue, a topic that makes each individual flinch because of issues that have a broader range of meaning and implications such as privacy violation and surveillance. But if we stop and look at things from an analytical perspective we will realize that the information about our motion and location flows on a regular basis and most of the time we enjoy it, whether we use Waze, or Google Maps to navigate abroad, order a taxi via Gett, receive advertisements and Google guidance on restaurants and places of entertainment, check events near us through Facebook and also fighting the Coronavirus.

The information is so valuable that there are companies that have built empires on it, isn't it time for the individuals to use the information to our advantage too?

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