Jun 19, 2020

What happened to coronavirus contact tracing on our phones?

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Only a handful of state governments have developed apps that could be used to help notify users if they've been near someone with COVID-19.

“Test and trace” was supposed to be the way to let businesses and economies reopen safely. The idea was to identify people infected with COVID-19 quickly and then figure out who they’d been in contact with so they could isolate themselves.

Earlier in this pandemic, Apple and Google joined forces to help create a shared underlying technology for digital contact tracing apps. But at least in the United States, they haven’t caught on. Apple and Google’s tech only work with apps developed by government health authorities. And almost no states have developed those apps.

I spoke with Ina Fried, chief technology correspondent for Axios. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ina Fried (Photo courtesy of Fried)

Ina Fried: On the technical side, you really need a lot of buy-in to make this work. It’s not perfect. It’s really to augment human contact tracing. Basically, the way this works is if your phone is nearby someone else, and they later say, “I have tested positive for coronavirus,” you can get a notification. In order for that to work, a lot of people have to use it, and culturally, the United States just has an aversion to this sort of tracking. We’ve seen people don’t want to wear a mask, they don’t want to do all kinds of things, so they’re not going to be prepared to do this kind of invasiveness. The other thing is, other countries are doing it at the national level, and in the U.S., it’s fallen to the states who are already trying to manage so many things. 

Jack Stewart: How is it working in other countries? Is there a good model out there? 

Fried: It’s super early days, but I think already we’ve realized this is a fairly limited tool. This can help, but by itself it’s not a replacement for human contact tracing, interviewing people who’ve tested positive. “Where did you go? Who were you near?” This is at best, I think, something that can help that process, help with those brief interactions or the anonymous interactions that you couldn’t possibly tell a contact tracer who you interacted with at the grocery store, for example. This technology might help those people be notified. 

Stewart: Do you think that there could be a future for this type of technological contact tracing, or was this just a well-meaning attempt that these companies put together at the beginning of this pandemic and now we understand things better and just have decided that we don’t really need it?

Fried: I think we might well need it, we just may not have it. I do think there are applications of this for the future. I think that it shows that Apple and Google in a crisis can work together, which is very important because the smartphone world is largely split between those two ecosystems. The other thing I think it shows is there are innovative ways to use the technology we have every day to help with things like a health crisis, and I think that could even play out in smaller ways as people around the world go back to their offices. It’s going to be important to know who came in contact with whom. That’s actually a place where I think that technology could play a big role. I’ve talked to a bunch of companies that are planning technologies, big and small, for the office to help it be safer as people go back. Even if the exact technology that Apple and Google were working on doesn’t play a big role in the U.S., it can play a big role elsewhere. But also, I think it’s opened our minds to some of the things that are possible using this technology, all while raising the point that privacy is really important.

Stewart: We’ve seen a few different approaches around the world to governments creating their own apps or jumping on board with this Apple-Google model. This week, we saw that the United Kingdom has said it will switch its own efforts to the Apple-Google model. Are there advantages to that?

Fried: There are. There are advantages and disadvantages. You saw a lot of the earliest countries that invented digital apps did it completely different from how Apple and Google [did], maybe using GPS or other tools that later were shown not to be as effective. But the advantages some of those apps did have is they could track a lot more things. Apple and Google, in the name of privacy, put a ton of restrictions on how their technology can be used, so you can’t track location. You can’t require the app, it has to be voluntary. You can’t share other types of information. Apple and Google’s limits were designed to make the person who’s using it more comfortable, but it also limited the amount of information that can be collected. Some countries said, “We want a more comprehensive application, so we’re going to go our own way.” The problem there is in many cases, in order to work, you had to have the app open all the time, which is a nonstarter. No one is going to leave a coronavirus app open on their phone all the time. Plus, you didn’t have this deep lower-level work that Apple and Google did to make the iPhone and Android versions work interoperably. You are left with Apple and Google as the only really viable approach, and then you have to just suffer its limitations.

Corona-Warn-App was developed by the German government for tracing COVID-19 infections during the coronavirus pandemic. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart

One of the very few states that has developed an app is North Dakota. It’s called CARE19 and has reportedly been found sending data to third parties without permission, including Google and Foursquare, which Business Insider says specializes in passing data on to advertisers. This seems to be an artifact of the way states are having to build their own apps, as Fried explained. In North Dakota’s case, it outsourced it to a company that used an older app as a template. That app was designed to help football fans connect. The same company signed a contract to build the same app for South Dakota, Business Insider says, for $9,000. Meanwhile, Utah spent $2.75 million on an app and $300,000 per month in maintenance fees, and only 1.4% of residents have downloaded it, according to BuzzFeed.

One of the other contact tracing apps I managed to find in the limited selection in the Google Play Store, was for Italy. The New York Times reports on the questions that European countries are asking themselves about handing over too much power and data to foreign tech companies.

In Italy, as well as France and Germany, which are running pilots, downloading an app is voluntary. Other countries have used more invasive methods, from compulsory apps in India to an app used in Bahrain and Kuwait that goes far beyond the data collection of the Google-Apple effort and collects GPS location data in near-real-time. The BBC details how authorities can link that data to individuals, who then become unwitting participants in a TV show called “Are You at Home?” where a host video calls residents to try to catch them breaking stay-at-home orders.

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