by Augustina Baker of TechWarn.com (USA)
The past few
months have put the world on a red alert.
countries have been hit with cases of the novel coronavirus. A sense of panic
spread as the daily numbers grew exponentially for a
governments and healthcare workers are more on top of things. With that,
though, the curve is not yet flattened.
That has birthed
different concepts of how to eradicate the virus, one of which is the contact
The Tech Behind Contact Tracing Apps
apps are used to trace contacts digitally. What contacts, though?
Manual contact tracing has long been established as an evidence-based approach to defeating the spread of infectious diseases. The COVID-19 is not the first global outbreak, which has given the healthcare sector the time and practical experience to perfect manual contact tracing.
Under this program, healthcare workers seek to identify those that might have come in contact with a confirmed infected case so that they can be isolated.
The diseases that require such measures are highly infectious ones. If the contacts are not moving, they won’t be infecting others. When they aren’t infecting others, the numbers keep going down.
While areas like
California, New York, and Massachusetts have thrown a lot of manpower behind
manual contact tracing, a majority of regional and national administrations may
be waiting on digital contact tracing to get the job done.
That is where
these apps come in.
Bluetooth and GPS function on smartphones, healthcare officers can identify
those that a positive contact has been around in the recent past. All smartphones
with these apps on them will interact with one another in the background,
storing data that allows them to be used to map one another later. Should one
of the smartphones belong to an infected person, it is used to identify all
other smartphones that might have been in the same areas as this infected
The course of
action from here could be to send a message to such contacts to observe
self-isolation for 14 days to be sure they do not have the virus already. An
alternate course of action would be the evacuation of said persons by
healthcare officials to designated isolation centers where they could be better
The Flaws of Contact Tracing Apps
However, with exposed
backdoors in hardware and the increasingly commonplace nature of facial
recognition systems, people have lost trust in government’s use of surveillance
technologies over the years.
An ExpressVPN survey on contact tracing apps
shows that more than 80% of the American adult population are positive that the
government will tap into the data generated by these apps. Not even the
promise from Apple and Google that the data will be locally stored
on user’s phones is dissuading that thought.
The problem with this mindset is that the adoption rate of the app is affected. For digital contact tracing to work, about 80% of all smart phone users need to download and use the app. Take out the numbers that do not trust the government and big tech companies, and the adoption rate drops well below the required threshold. Even Singapore, which has had a head start on this project, has yet to attain a 30% adoption rate.
Say government intrusion and privacy were no issues. The numbers still do not account for people in rural areas, and those who do not have smartphones. After all, to get those apps means using an Android or iOS device. Even for those who have one, it would have to be a relatively new unit so that it is up to the task.
This is not the
time to throw all our weight behind an untested system, which the public is not
warming up to. There needs to be more time for testing, integration with the
public, and reinforcement of privacy-focused promises. Else, contact tracing
apps will just become another lofty idea.