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Webinar Recap: Privacy on COVID-19 Mobile Apps and the Role of Accountability Watchdogs

On June 4, 2020, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS) hosted a webinar on “Privacy on COVID-19 Mobile Apps and the Role of Accountability Watchdogs.” Moderated by GMF Director, Karen Kornbluh, we heard from IDAC President Quentin Palfrey, IDAC Partner Technologist and CEO of App Census and Good Research, Dr. Nathan Good, and Massachusetts Deputy Attorney General Sara Cable. 

The panelists discussed the key findings of IDAC’s recent investigation of over 100 COVID-19 mobile apps in the Google Play Store and why accountability in the space has been challenging to achieve. IDAC’s investigation yielded encouraging outcomes, as many of the COVID-19 apps were designed with good privacy and security practices, though there was room for improvement.

Taking a step back from IDAC’s investigation, Palfrey discussed the important role that IDAC and other watchdogs can play in the fast-developing internet ecosystem. Palfrey emphasized that the traditional model of accountability (e.g., law enforcement going after bad actors who violate the law), is a reactive process which occurs after tangible harm is done. Having other actors, like IDAC, engage in education and early prevention can head off problems before they rise to the level of crisis. By working with developers and platforms in addition to law enforcement, IDAC can be part of the nimble process required for norm development. 

The panelists discussed the benefit of having actors like IDAC to help establish a clear set of “rules of the road” to hold actors accountable and raise the bar across the digital ecosystem. Between unclear rules and a complex ecosystem, Cable discussed how State AGs can benefit from working with watchdog groups, like IDAC, to ensure that consumer privacy and security are protected. 

IDAC would like to thank the participants and the GMFUS for hosting this webinar. IDAC’s full report on the COVID-19 mobile app investigation can be found here.