Coronavirus: Why are there doubts over contact-tracing apps?
There is growing tension about the best approach to coronavirus contact tracking apps and whether or not the technology can deliver on its promises.
Smartphone software was developed to alert users when someone close to them becomes infected.
But the Ada Lovelace Institute said that there is “an absence of evidence” that such tools are practical, precise or technically capable.
Others point out that the initiative must be supported by an army of human pawns.
To complicate matters further, a schism has emerged among technologists working together to develop a pan-European solution.
And hundreds of scientists and researchers have signed a statement warning that “the mission creep” could eventually lead to “unprecedented surveillance of society at large”.
What are the concerns?
Contact tracking apps try to record every instance where a person is close to another smartphone owner for a significant period of time.
If it is believed that a user has been subsequently infected and records the fact, a series of warnings could be immediately sent to others.
Those deemed high risk could be said to stay home, while others could continue to live outside of a block.
They use a variety of methods, including keeping records of users’ global positioning system (GPS) location and requesting to scan QR codes (Quick Response).
But earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union She said: “We talked to engineers and executives from some of the largest US companies that hold position data on the movements and positions of Americans and generally told us that their data is not suitable for determining who was in contact with whom for the purpose. by Covid19. “
And many countries are now focused on using another technology – Bluetooth wireless signals – to detect contact matches.
This still offers a way to record close encounters but not where they occurred.
But critics warn that this type of system would be inaccurate since some phones pick up signals up to 30m away without being able to determine the distance.
Interference can also prevent two phones from noticing each other within 2 m.
As a result, according to Ada Lovelace’s study, many games would be lost while others would be recorded by mistake.
“The traceability of digital contacts will be less able to control variables such as ventilation, wind direction or the environment, factors that are normally central to manual contact traceability efforts,” he says.
“[And] the traceability of digital contacts will be vulnerable to all forms of fraud and abuse – by people who use multiple devices, false reports of infection, denial of service attacks by contradictory actors “.
However, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute have previously suggested that even if false and missed alarms were common, the spread of the virus would still slow down and people should spend less time in quarantine.
How can manual locators be useful?
An effective automated system should be faster and more accurate than human memory.
But since the app won’t be 100% reliable or used by everyone, experts say manual contact tracking still has a role to play.
“If you ask me if a Bluetooth contact tracking system implemented or under development anywhere in the world is ready to replace the manual contact track, I will say without qualification that the answer is no, not now and, also with the advantage of [artificial intelligence], not for the foreseeable future, “wrote Jason Bay in the blog, which he led development of the Singapore TraceTogether app.
Manual contact tracking requires hiring a multitude of people.
And last week, British Health Minister Matt Hancock he said he committed himself to strengthening the country’s ranks.
“They should already send a call to medical and veterinary students, people who have lost their jobs and others want to volunteer and help,” prof. Devri Sridhar, of the University of Edinburgh.
“This can be used to build a large database … to start training people on how to track contacts and connect to existing government systems.”
Why are there still privacy issues?
For the most part, governments promise to anonymize user data and limit the use of the information collected to address the pandemic.
But in many cases, where apps have yet to be started, they have yet to explain how they would do it.
“I would say that details really matter, and we have no details,” said Prof. Vanessa Teague, of the University of Melbourne, on the next app in Australia.
“An obvious risk is that a person’s close physical contacts may be accidentally or deliberately pulled from their phone and used for purposes unrelated to disease control.”
Professor Teague is one of over 300 researchers who signed the mission creep warning statement.
The group applauded a Google and Apple initiative that would facilitate contact traceability on iOS and Android phones, but severely limits the information that may be collected by the authorities.
But they warned some “are pressuring” the two companies “to open up their systems to allow them to acquire more data.”
NHSX – the health services division that is developing the UK app – is arguing with Apple and Google about adopting their scheme but has not made any commitments yet.
“User privacy is paramount, which is why we are working with other countries, a range of experts, stakeholders and industry to ensure that the app under development is guided by the best scientific and clinical advice to reduce virus transmission. while protecting user privacy, “said a spokesman.
Why are privacy defenders divided?
Before Apple and Google were involved, there was a separate initiative to create the technical foundations of a contact tracking system that would allow apps from different countries to work together rather than become incompatible on the borders of each nation.
But in recent days a fracture has developed in the PEPP-PT (Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing) project.
Many of the participants stopped, citing a number of privacy concerns.
“In fact, almost all the prestigious institutions that made it pan-European have now gone away,” said Dr. Michael Veale, from the Decentralized Privacy Proximity Monitoring Team (DP3T).
“[There was] lack of adequate governance and transparency at a time when deep transparency is needed “.
Vodafone, among others, joined the PEPP-PT project, but the group’s organizers admit that they could have handled the situation better.
“We apologized publicly for the way the communication on the two approaches under discussion was handled,” a spokesman told BBC News, adding that it remained in discussion with over 40 countries to adopt its solution.
What about those without compatible phones?
Not everyone with a mobile phone will be able to use distributed apps.
Globally, approximately 25% of the 3.4 billion active smartphones are unable to meet the Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) standard required by Google and Apple, according to a report by Counterpoint Research.
The UK figure is 12%, but many other people have multiple basic cell phones without access to the iOS or Android app stores.
“Most of these users suffer from digital divide,” said analyst Neil Shah.
“Either they are too old to use a smartphone, they would find it complex or they would rely on a hand-me-down model.
“Or they come from a low-income group and can’t afford a better spec laptop.”
This has led to concerns for many of the people at higher risk of infection and death would lose alarms.
“I’m afraid it’s the people they don’t have [compatible] phones and I’m completely in the blind spot of this and [the] people who don’t have the luxury of worrying about getting sick because they simply need the money for their high-risk jobs, which means these apps won’t be widely adopted, “said data scientist Cathy O’Neil.
“There is critical information missing from the network and the result will be a false sense of accomplishment.”
Nobody thinks that apps are the complete solution.
But their defenders claim to be a useful weapon in an “arsenal of epidemic control measures” and if enough people adopt them, a second wave of cases could be suppressed, saving many lives as a result.