How can we use Contact Tracing to stop the spread of COVID-19?
Contract tracing is just half of it, the other half is mass testing. The Atlantic article referenced above describes how countries like South Korea, Singapore, and China implemented the process of testing and tracing to deal with COVID-19. All three of these nations have successfully reduced the curve by heavily utilizing contact tracing.
In South Korea, the government uses cell phone location data, CCTV, and credit card records to closely monitor the movements of their citizens. When someone tests positive for the virus, local governments send out alerts that could include the infected persons last name, sex, birth year, district of residence, profession, travel history, contact with known cases, and hospital they were being treated at. In a recently published article in nature, reporter Mark Zastrow wrote that “In some districts, public information includes which rooms of a building the person was in, when they visited a toilet, and whether or not they wore a mask.”
In Singapore, people are being asked to download an app called TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth to keep a log of nearby devices. If someone tests positive, they can inform the Ministry of Health, which then pings out an alert to nearby devices which are in Bluetooth range.
Ulf Buermeyer, a privacy advocate, an officer at the Berlin Department of Justice, and the president of Germany’s Society for Civil Rights talks about the negative aspects of Singapore’s program. He says that the app requires you to register your phone number, and if you get sick, authorities can easily track your ID and match it to your home and impose restrictive measures on you directly.
In China, citizens are required to download an app that broadcasts their location to authorities like the local police. The software uses geo tracking data, like travel bookings, and designates people with colour codes (red for high risk and green for low risk) depending on their risk level. Individuals who are presumed to be a higher risk can be banned from apartment complexes, offices and even grocery stores.
Why do we need Contact Tracing?
By most accounts, COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon. A vaccine is still being developed, and could take over a year to become available. Additionally, the global economic impact that this virus is having is by and large uncertain at this point, but it could potentially be very bad, so it’s imperative that we end this lockdown and get our economy back on track as soon as possible.
However, barring a miracle vaccine being produced in the next few weeks, when lockdowns end there is no protection for people who are at risk of contracting a second wave of coronavirus. But, if there was a way to implement contact tracing in western countries, similar to how South Korea, Singapore, and China did it, opening up our society becomes a real possibility.
Why is Contact Tracing Controversial?
There are very obvious privacy issues with the widespread implementation of contact tracing technology and many of these problems are evident in the examples provided above of South Korea, Singapore, and China.
Living in the western society, it’s no secret that we’re already being monitored to some extent, ads are becoming eerily more accurate in knowing exactly what we want to buy, but what can happen if they closely start monitoring our biometrics as well?
Yuval Noah Harari recently wrote about the world after coronavirus, it’s a fascinating read and I recommend it to everyone. In the article he beautifully sums up the very real worries of contact tracing.
He states that “If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician.” He illustrates this point further by telling us to “imagine North Korea in 2030, when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.”
However, 2030 may be a conservative estimate, as many human-rights advocates already fear that the public-health app released in China is secretly moonlighting as a tool of government espionage and mass discrimination.
Is the Partnership with Google and Apple the Solution?
Google and Apple’s solution will be launched in two steps and will have a strong focus on user privacy.
First, in May they’ll release a series of apps from public health authorities that will be available on both Android and iOS devices.
Second, in the coming months, both companies will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contract tracing platform. This platform will be built into your operating system so you won’t need to download an app. In their announcement Google claims that “this is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.”
Both Google and Apple say that privacy, transparency, and consent are of the utmost importance to them in this effort and they say that they’ll openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.
There are a lot of questions that we can raise with Google and Apple's latest announcement. For example, who’s going to have access to all this information? Will it be these tech giants, or governments? Or might it be open source, with a centralized database for everyone to see? How long will these measures last? Will they be temporary? Even if they were being advertised as temporary, should we believe them? As Yuval Harari eloquently puts it, “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon”.