Monday, April 27, 2020

Is There A Contact-Tracing App In Your Future?

Excuse the similarity to last week's headline about immunity passports in your future, but with so little going on right now either in the economy or elsewhere, thinking about the future seems to be a good thing to do.  And it's likely that you will hear more in the coming weeks about contact-tracing apps for your mobile phone.

A contact-tracing app is designed to follow you around like a 24-hour detective, noticing everybody you've been within Bluetooth range of.  Bluetooth is a short-range communications system that virtually all mobile phones have, and its typical range is about six feet (two meters), which is conveniently just the same as the social-distancing space we are supposed to be keeping to avoid COVID-19 nowadays.  If anyone you've been near subsequently tests positive for COVID-19, this fact is communicated via the app to everyone who has come within proximity to that infected person in the last week or two, and they know to quarantine themselves and get tested too. 

In the computer geek's ideal world, not only would everybody have such an app, but the app would also take note of the physical location where the encounter with the infected person occurred.  That way you could let people even without mobile phones know that if they were in such-and-such place at such-and-such time, there was somebody there who could have infected them.

Countries such as South Korea which have implemented extensive contact tracing by non-automated means have found that it greatly reduced the need for blanket restrictions on movement, such as the U. S. and many other countries are enduring right now.  So worldwide, a number of countries are developing contact-tracing apps.  The BBC reports that Australia and Denmark hope to roll theirs out within two weeks, and Germany won't be far behind. 

In the U. S., the states of North and South Dakota as well as Utah have announced that they are working on similar projects.  However, the tech giants Google and Apple are reluctant to implement the GPS-coupled geographic data feature, because they fear that for example, if the Walmart in your neighborhood gets cited as a place where somebody could have picked up COVID-19, that could hurt the store's business. 

At an Oxford University ethics website, Bryce Goodman discusses the ethical implications of these proposed apps.  He sees it as a privacy-versus-health tradeoff, and would push the lever way toward health and away from privacy.  He points out that the same kind of privacy-intrusive data tracking is already being used to sell us things like skin cream, so why not use it to save lives? 

Until a vaccine against COVID-19 is available, we are either going to have to keep doing what we're doing now—hunkering down and wrecking the economy—or get a lot better at tracing contacts and quarantining only those people who need to be quarantined.  I agree with Goodman when he points out that the extremely blunt instrument of a general lockdown is much harder on some people than others—mainly those who can't work from home and are suffering from the lack of a paycheck, or any distinct prospect of one in the future.  So anything we can do safely to lift the economically costly restrictions should be considered seriously.

On the other hand, whatever humankind can conceive, an unkind human can hack, and it's very easy to picture how a widely-used, let alone compulsory, contact-tracing app could be twisted to cause embarrassment, loss of business, or worse.  Ideally, what would emerge from the system would be a big-data picture of the entire process of how the disease is spreading, geography and names included.  That information would have to exist somewhere, regardless of how often the proposers of the idea say it would be anonymized, because the whole point of the system is identifying people, and perhaps places as well.

There will be mistakes made, and perhaps intentionally false data provided to the system.  How would you feel if you had been doing everything right and suddenly your phone tells you you have COVID-19 and have to stay in total isolation for two weeks?  Or what if some hacker maliciously publishes the names of everybody who has contacted someone with COVID-19 in a whole city?  Welcome to Pariahville.

Those are some downsides I can think of without even trying hard, and I'm sure there are others.  On the upside, I have to admit it would be nice to go back to something approximating normal and get a haircut, pump gas, and (horrors!) even go to a movie without feeling either fearful, guilty, or both.  But I would have confidence to do such things only if I knew that my chances of catching the disease of the hour would be so small that it would fall down into the risk noise of being run over by a bus or hit by lightning.  Right now, that's not the case.

And here's where this topic folds into last week's topic:  the immunity-passport idea.  It might develop that the contact-tracing app becomes a de facto disease-free passport.  If you've been using it faithfully for however long, and if the great majority of people around you are also using it, and if it really works, the fact that it shows you are clean can be trusted.  But if I was running a movie theater, I'd want to see that green spot or whatever it would be on your app before I'd let you in.  And that would get us right back to where many citizens of China are today, who have to show a green color on their compulsory smartphone COVID-19 app before they're permitted to move around most places.  In that regard, China is not a place I would like to emulate right now.

I'm no prophet, and I can't tell whether contact-tracing apps will get very far (Singapore has had less than 25% participation in their voluntary rollout, which makes it almost useless), or will become the de-facto passport to ordinary life again.  Probably what will happen is somewhere in between.  But it will be interesting to see if we can use this high-tech solution to fight what is presently devastating many lives, both in terms of sickness and death, and in terms of economic loss and social isolation.

Sources:  I thank Michael Cook, editor of, for calling my attention to contact-tracing apps and providing me with these sources I referred to:  the BBC at and the Oxford Practical Ethics site at .  I also referred to an article from the Reuters website at

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