Just What the Hell is Contact Tracing?

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It’s been a buzzword for a bit, but what does it mean? And more importantly, here’s why it matters

Since the coronavirus crisis broke out, governments have been scrambling to contain the virus using a variety of methods. A popular solution that many have tried to adopt is contact tracing. But just what the hell is contact tracing you ask? Well here’s a deep dive into the technology, and its implications for our future.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines contact tracing as a process where “health staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe while they may have been infectious.” The idea is to identify all the people who could be potentially exposed to a disease so that they can be tested and isolated if they are infected. 

Contact tracing is not a new idea, it’s been around for a few decades and used to fight sexually transmitted diseases like HIV. However, since those diseases affect a smaller percentage of the population, tracing has often been done manually, by “disease intervention specialists”. Due to the scale of COVID-19, that just isn’t possible. Which is why we have turned to technology.

Digital Contact Tracing

To simplify the process of tracing, many governments are forcing people to install tracing apps. These apps automatically tell users when they have been exposed to COVID-19, through an “exposure notification”. An infected person simply informs the app that they have the coronavirus, and the app sends out a message via Bluetooth to users around the infected person. This is done without revealing the infected person’s identity.  

China was one of the first countries to use tracing on a mass scale. Using their surveillance systems already in place, the nation forced citizens to download an app that assigned them a health code. Combined with facial recognition and telecom operator’s ability to track users, China was able to quickly and easily track infected patients.

The Chinese model isn’t an ideal solution in the west, where ‘freedom’ is a concept taken more seriously. So, western governments have been scrambling to identify a workaround. There’s been a flood of apps with varying degrees of success. The main challenge has been privacy, because tracing apps need to take advantage of location data, Bluetooth and personal information to alert users. Governments have also been trying to create a central database, making it easier for various organisations to track and respond to cases. 

A recent poll by the Washington Post found that 60 per cent of Americans either would not or could not allow their phone to silently and anonymously surveil them, even in the name of public health. There’s a strong pushback due to privacy concerns, but it’s not universal. Some countries, like India, have made the app mandatory with stiff penalties for those who haven’t downloaded it. As we previously covered, with our health and life at stake, citizens are more willing to surrender their freedom to privacy. 

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Contact Tracing Stats Usa
This chart shows the percentage of U.S. adults who are likely/unlikely to use a cell phone-based COVID-19 contact tracing system. Source: Statista

Apple and Google Join the Fight

To help simplify the process of creating apps, and set privacy standards for such apps, Apple and Google announced on April 10 that they were working together on a contact tracing API. On May 21, that API was finally made available to the public. The two companies were forced to work together to overcome the built-in defences to tracing that they had developed for Android and iOS over the years. 

In a press release, Apple said: “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyse.” With a strong focus on privacy, the companies have created a set of universally-applicable rules for the API, so that users’ privacy is safeguarded. 

The first rule is that the APIs would only work during the pandemic. With an expiration date, users have some relief that they won’t be tracked forever. The API also features anonymised keys (that the phone exchanges when sending out a notification), which changes every 15 minutes. This makes it difficult (but not impossible) to identify an individual. Third, the companies have promised that the data will be stored on the users’ device, rather than a central server. This means that governments should have a hard time accessing all the data. And finally, the API is optional, so users will have to explicitly opt-in for contact tracing to work.

Apple Google Release
A statement from Apple and Google on their exposure notification API. Source: Apple

Does it Work?

With all these safeguards built-in, an important question to ask is how far the API will help in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Bluetooth isn’t a powerful technology, its accuracy is questionable at best. That could lead to a lot of false-positive notifications, or no notifications at all. Either way, both could make it chaotic to know if you have been near an infected person. It’s essentially going to give us a false sense of safety while simultaneously infringing on people’s rights,” Ashkan Soltani, a former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist told Vox.

Public health authorities have publicly called out the limited benefit of the tool since the data isn’t available on a central server. Without centralised data, there’s little authorities can do to intervene, it’s up to people to get themselves tested if they get an exposure notification. The opt-in system also means that it’s less likely to be widely used. An Oxford University study found that at least 60% of the population would have to use the contact tracing app for it to help stop the epidemic. 

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For that to happen, that would mean billions of people around the world would need to have an Apple or Android device, and update to the latest versions of the software to get the API. That’s just half the battle, governments would still need to convince all these people to download the app. That’s where the real challenge lies.

Even if all this is done, there’s not much research to prove that such apps have long-term benefits. As Matt Burgess wrote for Wired: “At best, tracing apps could aid the far more effective and complex sleuthing carried out by human contact tracers. At worst, the technology could prove useless, erode fundamental human rights and usher in unprecedented mass surveillance.” In an interview with Vox, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that contact tracing alone was a “somewhat superficial and not very meaningful” solution.

Covid Safe Paths
COVID Safe Paths is one of the hundreds of contact tracing apps available, but haven’t been updated with the latest API yet.

It’s very clear that contact tracing when done digital is far from the magic bullet we all hoped it would be in the early days of the pandemic. It’s hard to get the technology perfect while safeguarding our privacy. If (and that’s a huge if) we choose to forgo our privacy in the short term, the long term implications are scary. It could usher in a new era of surveillance, where the Chinese model goes global in the name of security.

At the same time, if we don’t use the tools we have now, the pandemic could take years to end. If you haven’t, now is a good time as any to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Spectre. The two films offer great political commentary on surveillance, and can maybe help us decide which path to take. Whichever we do, there will be regrets as the implications are yet to be fully understood. 

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