Article: Track-and-Trace Tactics

COVID-19 Mobile Apps

The Swisscovid contact tracing application of Switzerland, using Bluetooth and a design called Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) to ease the lockdown caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Jul. 23, 2020

by Babak Babali

Will our smartphones, powered with track-and-trace applications, save us from the specter of COVID-19? If so, how do we balance privacy and safety?

The heat of the summer is upon us and COVID-19 has not died out because of warmer weather, as some had hoped back in the beginning of the pandemic. So far, the virus has infected over 10 million, taking the lives of over 500,000.

There is tentative evidence, however, that the number of daily new cases is going down in many former epicenters of the disease, although the virus is still rampant in populous nations such as India, the US, and Brazil.

The biggest fear for those nations which have more-or-less controlled the first wave of the pandemic, however, is a second coming of the virus—probably with genetic mutations.

Many nations are evaluating the effectiveness of the tactics they have used since February, including the imposition of lockdowns, widespread testing, and the mandatory wearing of face masks.

But one strategy has stirred more debate than others: contact tracing of infected citizens using digital technology.

The proponents of track-and-trace systems emphasize the method's effectiveness in South Korea, Hong Kong, and New Zealand, among other places. The World Health Organization (WHO), too, is of the opinion that ramping up testing and contact tracing is an effective tactic in fighting the pandemic.

South Korea, which used a highly sophisticated track-and-trace system since the early days of the pandemic, is a case in point. Once an early epicenters of the disease, South Korea has put up a great fight against the pandemic, with the nation's new confirmed cases dropping to almost zero.

What is contact tracing?

The first thing to know about contact tracing is that it can mean very different things to different people in different countries, as it will be explained later in this article.

However, in all its variations, the system depends on digital infrastructure, and its implementation is impossible without a well-funded healthcare system, which is not a given in many parts of the world.

What is more, contact tracing is practically useless if it is not accompanied with nationwide, free-of-charge testing for COVID-19.

What is the point of tracing people, after all, if we do not know with a high level of confidence which ones are potential carriers of the virus?

In the most basic version of contact tracing, when a positive case of COVID-19 is confirmed in a testing center, the person is questioned and his interactions with friends, family members, co-workers, and strangers are mapped out manually.

Then, those who are more likely to have caught the virus form the carrier are either tested themselves or quarantined for good measure.

Technology has a role to play, as well. Software developers everywhere have risen to the occasion by launching iOS and Android apps which can keep track of the potential carriers of the virus and notify those who have come to contact with them, even during the incubation period.

But the mandatory installation of invasive track-and-trace apps on people's smartphones goes against the spirit of most Western democracies. As such, almost all European nations have adopted less invasive versions of contact tracing schemes.

The system used in China, on the other hand, required a citizen's national ID number and phone number, monitored his or her whereabouts at all times, and even kept a record of their calls and online purchases.

Whenever people wanted to leave their homes, the app asked them about their symptoms, and by analyzing their previous comings-and-goings determined whether they were good to go, likely to be a carrier of the virus, or at a high risk of being infected.

Does contact tracing work?

Some regard contact tracing apps as our best bet for defeating the coronavirus, while others regard them as harmless supplements to traditional methods of curbing the outbreak; still some dismiss them as useless gimmicks altogether.

As the success of contact tracing solutions depends on the amount of data that is fed to the system, and citizens of different countries are subject to different levels of mandatory surveillance, there is no telling if track-and-trace tactics work effectively everywhere.

In Australia, for example, use of the national contact tracing app, COVIDSafe, is optional, and data destruction is guaranteed. The app only uses the smartphone's Bluetooth capability to warn users that they are in the vicinity of a carrier of the virus—who has hopefully been considerate enough to also use COVIDSafe and mark his or her status as an infected individual in the app.

More authoritarian states, meanwhile, have made the use of their contact tracing apps mandatory, demanding access to a user's Google location, exact GPS coordinates, and—in one or two cases—access to your device's photo and video gallery.

An app which was briefly used in Moscow, Russia, assigned citizens QR codes each time they applied for a permission to leave their place of residence. QR permits were issued by a government website after applicants had fully declared their intended route.

It is not clear how seriously the plan was taken by the citizenry and the law enforcement personnel in Moscow.

What is the problem?

Putting Russia's case aside, it seems that track-and-trace apps have been generally more successful in authoritarian states such as China as well as in Asian countries where people traditionally tend to follow the instructions of their governments without much resistance or misgivings.

In Western nations, where privacy and individualism are highly valued, the success of contact tracing solutions faces a dilemma: contact tracing apps need accurate information to work effectively, but many people are highly reluctant to grant their governments 24/7 access to their exact location and a detailed list of their daily activities.

France, the UK, and Norway did not even adopt a contact tracing system developed jointly by American tech giants, Google and Apple, fearing that the solution might compromise the anonymity of their citizens, although Germany opted to use the Google/Apple interface.

As a result of all this, there are currently no universally accepted track-and-trace standards. QR codes, Bluetooth, Google location, and GPS coordinates are used by different national and private apps, and no Western democracy has gone so far as to make the use of a contact tracing app mandatory.

It was this very problem that Google and Apple were trying to address in a rare instance of cooperation, making sure that different iOS and Android apps can work in tandem using the Google/Apple interface.

The two tech giants are trying to create a universal application programming interface (API), whose data can never be used for purposes other than public health, while reassuring users that their privacy is protected.

However, the world still has a long way ahead. On June 24, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented that “No country in the world has a working contact-tracing app," which is not far from the truth.

With the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 looming over us, especially when the colder months arrive, and given the proven capabilities of track-and-trace solutions in certain countries, a universally accepted contact tracing solution could save lives, while also kick-starting business by sparing the world from further nationwide lockdowns—at least in nations that have the required telecoms infrastructure, testing centers, and public approval for the scheme.

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