Bashir and Sharma author article in Nature Medicine on privacy protection and COVID-19

Masooda Bashir
Masooda Bashir, Associate Professor

iSchool Associate Professor Masooda Bashir and Informatics PhD student Tanusree Sharma have published a paper, "Use of Apps in the COVID-19 Response and the Loss of Privacy Protection," in Nature Medicine. In the paper, they examine how digital surveillance used to contain the spread of COVID-19 may impact privacy rights.

As the world deals with the effects of the pandemic, some countries have launched tracking apps for their citizenry. Common functionalities of the apps are live maps and updates of confirmed cases; real-time location-based alerts; systems for monitoring home isolation and quarantine; and education about COVID-19.

Bashir and Sharma examined fifty of the apps available in the Google Play Store that were developed specifically for COVID-19 and found that the majority of the apps require permission for numerous types of access to users' mobile devices. Only sixteen of the apps indicate that the user's data will be made anonymous, encrypted, and secured and will be transmitted online and reported only in an aggregated format.

According to the researchers, "What is disconcerting is that these apps are continuously collecting and processing highly sensitive personally identifiable information, such as health information, location, and direct identifiers (e.g., name, age, email address, and voter/national identification). Governments' use of such tracking technology—and the possibilities for how they might use it after the pandemic—is chilling."

Bashir and Sharma endorse the development of policies, mathematical models, and technological measures to protect data being collected. They also stress the importance of transparency in promoting how data can help contain the spread of COVID-19 while ensuring that civil liberties are protected.

Sharma focuses on research concerning information security and privacy from data-driven and forensic approaches. She received her BS in information technology from Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh. Prior to starting her PhD program, Sharma worked on a European Union-funded project in Bangladesh.

Bashir's research interests lie at the interface of information technology, human psychology, and society; especially how privacy, security, and trust intersect from a psychological point of view with information systems. At Illinois, she serves as the director of Social Sciences in Engineering Research in the College of Engineering and holds appointments in the Information Trust Institute, Coordinated Science Laboratory, and Beckman Institute. Before coming to Illinois, Bashir worked for several years as a systems analyst, technical trainer, manager, and global manager for a number of corporations in Silicon Valley, including Lotus and IBM. She holds degrees in mathematics, computer science, and psychology and earned her PhD in psychology from Purdue University.

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