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Did Privacy Fears Spoil Our Shot at Contact-Tracing COVID Out?

It’s safe, free and could save thousands of lives. What’s the holdup? Decades of getting royally screwed by Big Tech

On April 16th, as the U.S. surpassed 650,000 coronavirus cases, researchers at the University of Oxford urged the world’s governments and tech giants to develop smartphone apps that could alert people to any COVID-19 exposure. After running computer simulations of a city with a population of 1 million and “a wide range of realistic epidemiological configurations,” the Oxford team found a 60 percent adoption rate of contact-tracing apps could potentially bring an end to the pandemic.

By May 20th, both Google and Apple released platform updates that enabled contact-tracing. To protect user data, they utilized Bluetooth to exchange anonymized information with nearby phones, rather than tracking GPS location and storing it in a central database. If you, for example, contracted COVID-19, the phone would send an alert to the phones of people you were recently near, telling them to contact local health officials.

Because the U.S. lacks a national contact-tracing strategy, developing the apps — and all the maps, contact tools and graphics therein — was left to states to handle individually. This can be a costly endeavor, but countries like Ireland and Canada have made the codes to their apps available for free, so all state authorities needed to do was make mostly cosmetic changes.

As of seven months later, only 13 states have invested in the technology at all. Within the states that have created apps, actual downloads are critically low. For instance, North Dakota was the first state to develop an app, yet after two months of being heavily marketed, only 5 percent of the state’s population had downloaded it.

On one hand, as Aaron Mak argues in Slate, maybe widespread adoption of the tracking apps wouldn’t negate pitfalls to the technology, like potential bad actors and people eventually ignoring notifications. Nor would it make up for the systemic failures in the country’s approach to the virus. “If it takes more than a week for people to get test results, this system is basically useless,” Mak writes.

However, as we enter the so-called third wave, surpassing the record highs of the spring and summer as we head into the holidays, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the apps. Wouldn’t increased awareness and caution result in a net positive? For example, in Germany, where COVID infection rates are comparatively low, Politico reports that 15.6 million people have downloaded contact-tracing apps. Of course, Germany has a smaller population, strong legislation surrounding data protection and a government that isn’t actively spreading the virus — but one-fifth of the country being notified and taking precautions after being potentially exposed must play a part. As the Oxford models showed, even a low adoption rate could have a positive effect, estimating that “one infection will be averted for every one to two users.”

Unfortunately, it seems we’re facing the consequences of the current administration’s and Silicon Valley’s repeated violations of the American public’s privacy. In June, software security company Avira surveyed 2,005 Americans, over 70 percent of whom said they wouldn’t download such an app because of privacy concerns. Therein, 40 percent said they don’t trust anyone with their data, 32 percent say they would trust Apple or Google, and only 14 percent said they would trust the government with the data they believe these apps would collect.

You could argue that most Americans are likely already serving up their location data for free via numerous apps that have no business collecting location data. But thanks to the politicization of the pandemic and social media, people on both sides of the political spectrum are unwilling to hand over their data to the institutions who might access it.

“On the one hand, you have people who feel contact-tracing apps will violate their constitutional rights, which is repeated constantly by certain politicians and influencers that the community trusts,” says Gina Longo, digital sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “On the other, you have people who are genuinely afraid that data will be used by the government to track down them and family members for other unseemly reasons — this is especially true for people of color, the undocumented, political activists and other vulnerable communities.”

With that in mind, Longo explains the difference between apps that collect your data in the background and the contact-tracing apps that require “active participation in disclosing our information.” “This brings the issue of privacy to the fore,” she says. “No one really thinks too much about passive data collection, but the necessity of users’ active participation in disclosure of a potentially stigmatizing health condition — along with our personal information and the politicization of the pandemic — make the contact app appear nefarious and Big Brother-esque.”

9to5Mac and 9to5Google editor Michael Potuck argues adoption rates might change if people were more versed in the technology at hand. “It seems security concerns remain in the public about Apple and Google’s exposure notifications using location tracking when it’s actually Bluetooth-based and anonymous,” he says. “That could be a misunderstanding about how Bluetooth works, or maybe just overall distrust of media/big tech, [but] I’m not sure how much time or money is being spent by regional health authorities to get the word out.”

In other words, without a marketing budget, widespread adoption of these apps is just not going to happen.

Seven months ago, North Dakota was the first state government to create and promote a contact-tracing app called Care19. In the following months ProudCrowd, the firm that created Care19, was forced to defend the app after a largely misleading report declared that a specific line in the code used to determine which specific business infected people were, was actually selling a user’s data to third-party companies like Foursquare.

Despite a rebrand, several updates and the creation of a secondary app that serves as a diary of places users have visited rather than transmit information and sending notifications, South Dakota health officials have been unable to convince a large portion of the state to opt into contact tracing. According to Tim Brookins, CEO of ProudCrowd, 22,400 North Dakotans have installed the Bluetooth-enabled Care19 Alert app, and 14,000 of those — or 1.84 percent of the state’s overall population — are actively using it (as determined by users who’ve done at least one exposure scan in the last seven days).

Still, Brookins says, the app has arguably saved the lives of those who’ve taken the initiative. “Ninety-one users of Care19 Alert have been confirmed as COVID positive and had their ‘Notify Others’ button enabled in the month of October,” he tells me. “Should end up right about 100 for the month.”

Unfortunately, North Dakota is currently spiraling toward an uncontrollable breakout. With “four to five times the weekly average for daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people,” Vox reports that the state’s contact tracing department is overwhelmed with a backlog of cases, yet still “meeting increasing resistance from people to give up their contacts or abide by quarantine rules.”

Maybe one day the United States government can rein in tech giants and restore faith in user privacy by the time another pandemic sweeps across the globe. Until then, we’ll pray that TikTok will somehow make downloading contact-tracing apps a viral phenomenon.