This is how it starts …lol
Go back to the dawn of 2020 and the notion of everyone downloading an app to track our encounters with other people would have been worrying if not absurd. Today, with cases of COVID-19 ballooning in the US, it’s becoming increasingly probable that this kind of surveillance will be a key component in restoring society to normalcy.
The proposal is to use our smartphones for digital contact tracing. In the journal Science, a key paper by University of Oxford researchers recommends the technique. Even the European Data Protection Supervisor has advocated for an EU-wide app. Meanwhile, after Singapore and South Korea used tracing apps as part of their strong response to the spread of COVID-19, governments in France and the UK (through its National Health Service) are developing their own tracing apps. And the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the method is under “aggressive evaluation” as projects in the US sprout up from coast to coast.
The unprecedented collaboration on an interoperable infrastructure between Apple and Google — which came together in two weeks and was announced last Friday — has now set the stage for a robust, potentially global contact tracing system.
The idea of contact tracing is straightforward. When someone contracts a disease, public-health workers need to know who that person has had recent contact with to be able to locate, test and possibly isolate those contacts to stop the disease spreading even further.
For decades, this technique has required painstaking drudgery — interviewing patients about their every move, calling airlines and managers of restaurants, examining hotel records — to determine everyone that’s been exposed. This was the case in tracking the paths of HIV, Ebola and measles.
The challenge is that tracing each case typically takes many days. In Wuhan, China, more than 9,000 epidemiologists performed this task, working in teams of five, according to the WHO. Latest figures show there are about 83,000 cases of COVID-19 in China. In the US, there are currently tens of thousands of new known cases every day; a former CDC director has said the country would need “an army of 300,000 people” for effective contact tracing.
Right now, most of the US is under stay-at-home orders because we don’t know who has COVID-19 and who hasn’t; to be safe, we’re presuming that anybody could.
This is where digital stalking comes in. All that detective work could happen in an instant, using a tracking app. Anyone who has had contact with a patient— shared an elevator or office, bus or train — gets a message to instruct them on how to get tested. In one UK survey, about three in four respondents said they’d definitely or probably install this sort of app.
Right now, most of the US is under stay-at-home orders because we don’t know who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t; to be safe, we’re presuming that anybody could. In San Francisco and Massachusetts, local authorities are beefing up their contact-tracing capabilities, but for the most part, experts say, we’ve missed the boat on tracking the exact path of virus transmission for now.
However, effective tracing paired with widespread testing will be pivotal in containing COVID-19 after social distancing ends. For people to work and congregate again, we need to continuously identify and test people so they can be individually quarantined if they have contracted the virus. Knowing who does and doesn’t have it could allow us to separate the safe from the vulnerable, allowing society and the economy to gradually sputter back to life.
Here’s the first catch: For contact tracing to be effective, a lot of people need to opt in to tracking. David Bonsall, an Oxford researcher and co-author of the Science paper, has placed ‘a lot’ at about 60 percent of a country’s population. And while smartphone ownership in the US is just over 80 percent, the question is How do you get three quarters of the nation’s smartphones to all persistently share locations?
Enter Apple and Google. Unlike startups, NGOs and university initiatives, these companies already have a critical mass of users. With nothing but a software update, about 3 billion phones globally could have contact-tracing functionality.