We are now five months into a global pandemic, and has taken an insurmountable tool on life as we know it.
As countries around the world work to come up with a proven vaccine, slow the spread in communities, and minimize lives taken by the virus, smartphone apps have become one of many strategies to do just that.
Since the virus can be transmitted from affected people through being in a close vicinity, health authorities have pinpointed “contact tracing” as a helpful tool.When people are physically nearby each other, by using an app on their cell phones, they can exchange data. This creates a rolodex, so to speak, of who the person has been near within a certain timeframe.
The concept of using goes something like this — if a cell phone user is infected with COVID-19, the log of people who they came into contact with, would be alerted. In theory, this app tool could help further support a country’s fight to control the outbreak, including social distancing, wearing masks, sheltering at home, and testing.
Coronavirus apps need to be treated like any medical intervention — taking extreme measures of both efficacy and protection. However, since apps are being created independently across the world, there are currently no set standards in place.
Digital Tracing Measures Around the Globe
There are governments, non-profit organizations, and universities around the globe who have begun using opt-in COVID-19 data collecting technology. In most circumstances, governments are collaborating with tech companies to develop these apps.
A contact-tracing app in the UK enables the phone’s owner to report their symptoms. The data that is collected is housed centrally, and users allow health organizations to inform their contacts.
When users of Australia’s COVIDSafe app come in close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus, they are notified by health officials.
Since this information is sensitive in nature, the apps are not mandatory and are strictly voluntary participation.
Here in the United States, mammoth tech companies Apple and Google announced in early April that they are collaborating on measures to help support COVID-19 contact tracing. Their solution includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology.
The businesses are co-creating cryptographic functions with the goal of generating and undertaking the alias directly into the operating systems.
This ability would settle the issue with iPhone’s battery by enabling apps to gather contact data in the framework. Additionally, this would also offer more security protection.
Concerns & Limitations
Theoretically the concept of contact tracing through apps makes perfect sense, but there is minimal published research that proves the effectiveness of slowing the spread by using these apps.
Accuracy is a major concern on the table, and not just for contact tracing apps, but for the testing results themselves. Some people have been contacted that their came back positive, when they never actually had a test done.
When a contact tracing app is tied to an official authorized test, accurate results are more probable. But in instances when someone has self-diagnosed themselves and incorrect information could be disseminated to a wide contact pool.
Another troublesome worry is individual privacy. Published research from European universities proves that the concept of is nearly impossible, “showing methods to correctly re-identify 99.98% of individuals in anonymized data sets,” as reported by TechCrunch.com.
Another concern is countries centrally storing data, which is can lead to hacking. In the spring, hundreds of leading researchers and scientists signed an petition to governments, advising them to store data in a variety of places.
Last but certainly not least, another major red flag is the need to use bluetooth for the contact-tracing on smartphones to work. Historically, reporting on security breaches indicates that users should disable Bluetooth when they are not using it at that time. In order for these COVID-19 tracking apps to work, cellphone users would need to keep their Bluetooth functions turned on.
Manual contact tracing can be a slow, tedious process, requiring interviews and investigative work. Digital contact tracing does expedite the process, but it should not be used as a replacement for human contact tracing teams, it should simply be seen as a complementary tool.
Ultimately, especially in America, a lack of trust in government will likely make it challenging for a contact tracing app to work at its highest potential.
A cryptographer at Johns Hopkins University, Matthew Green, says the infrastructure is already in place for widespread tracking. In an interview posted on Nature.com, Green explained, “Unfortunately, the idea of letting a government use that information is going to run into a lot of red flags from people, probably rightly. At the same time, this information is used every day — it’s just used in service of targeted advertising, which is something that we sort of put up with.”
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