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Combating COVID-19 with Code

Combating COVID-19 with Code

04 January 2021

As novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, epidemiologists continue to tell us that contact tracing—the practice of identifying infected individuals and who has had contact with them—is one of the best tools available to combat further transmission. In an effort to modernize that process, Google and Apple joined forces to develop an API that allows contact tracing apps to use Bluetooth communications to form ad-hoc local networks that can inform people when they’ve had contact with an infected individual. In short, if you’ve installed a contact tracing app that uses the API and identified yourself as infected, anyone else using the app will be notified of potential exposure if they come into close contact with you. It’s a devilishly simple solution (or part of a solution) to a complex problem—or it would be if were widely adopted.

France and Singapore have both built apps on the Apple Google API and seen dismal results. In France—a country with a population of about 67 million—less than 2 million individuals have installed the government’s app. Of those users, less than 100 have self-identified as infected. The app has, so far, sent approximately 20 push notifications warning users of potential exposure to coronavirus. In the US, only three states have publicly committed to releasing apps built on the API.

The issue is potentially two-fold. First, it depends on infected people to willingly identify themselves in-app. Personal health information, though, is regarded as some of the most private and protected information in existence. Because that right to privacy is so thoroughly ingrained in us, very few people will willingly self-report medical conditions—even highly communicable ones.

The second prong of the issue is that few laypeople will understand that the Apple Google API is built to preserve their privacy at every possible turn. The app uses Bluetooth notifications so that data storage is decentralized—if you identify yourself as infected, that information is stored on your own mobile device. Notifications don’t include any identifying information and are not sent instant instantaneously, so users who are informed that they’ve been exposed have little to no way of discerning who the infected individual may have been.

While the capabilities of the Apple Google API in contact tracing are clear, right now the technology seems to exist in the no-man’s land between convenience, necessity, and privacy concerns. If Apple or Google (or both) make a more pointed effort to inform people about the ways the API is meant to balance privacy and public health, we may see wider adoption of apps built on it. Unless those concerns are addressed or the pandemic worsens to the point that privacy becomes a lesser priority, though, we’re left with an elegant solution that nobody wants to use.

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