Clever cryptography could protect privacy in Covid-19 contact-tracing apps

By Andy Greenberg

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, any system that used smartphones to track locations and contacts sounded like a dystopian surveillance nightmare. Now, it sounds like a dystopian surveillance nightmare that could also save millions of lives and rescue the global economy. The paradoxical challenge: to build that vast tracking system without it becoming a full-on panopticon.

Since Covid-19 first appeared, governments and tech firms have proposed—and in some cases already implemented—systems that use smartphone data to track where people go and with whom they interact. These so-called contact-tracing apps help public health officials get ahead of the spread of Covid-19, which may in turn allow an easing of social distancing requirements.

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