Once a day or so, I log into the COVID Alert NY App and log my status. So far, that has meant one tap to say I feel well. If I were to come into prolonged contact with someone with COVID, I would get a push alert via the app letting me know. But that’s dependent on the person I came into contact with also logging their status in the app.
The problem is that very few people are using these apps. This is partly because they don’t know about them, but also because of privacy concerns. That’s a shame because if you understand how the tool works and appreciate just how much the apps already on your phone know about you, COVID tracking would be the least of your privacy concerns.
Contact tracing is a well-established method for containing outbreaks, but has long been an entirely manual process. In the 1930s, it helped curb a Syphilis outbreak in the US. In 2014, it was used to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Both of those diseases require close human contact to spread. COVID-19, we now know, is airborne. Hundreds of thousands of human contact tracers have been hired in the last seven months, but rates in the US continue to climb. There are 83,782 Americans in hospital beds with COVID right now. Our manual, human response is being overwhelmed. We need to scale up using technology, but it will only work if people download and use the app.
Several states, plus Washington D.C. and Guam, have developed apps that use the exposure notification feature that Apple and Google built into their operating systems; there is no nationwide system in place. (There are some third-party apps that perform the same function, which I don’t recommend; it’s easy to get scammed.)
Nevada launched COVID Trace on Aug. 24 and strongly recommended all of the state’s 3 million citizens download the app. As of Nov. 9, only 70,000 Nevadans did so. In fact, the app recorded zero positive cases in September. And yet to date, there have been 135,000 cases in the state and more than 2,000 deaths. If no one uses the app, the tool will not work.
Digital contact tracing uses your phone’s passive Bluetooth connection to identify other users with the app. If you test positive with COVID and report that in the app, your health department will ask you if you want to notify the people you have spent more than 15 minutes with in the last two weeks. Ideally, this could instantly notify dozens of people that someone they’ve been around (your name won’t be revealed) has tested positive, so they can quarantine or get tested.
The app does not store your personal contact information. Nor does it share this information with any third party. This makes it fundamentally different from, well, pretty much every other app on your phone. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter know your location, shopping habits, and interests and profit from that data. Most people don’t realize that many of the games and weather apps they install also track this info. Many apps also have access to your contact info, personal photos, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi connections. If you are worried about privacy, you should delete them all. (Although that won’t get around what your mobile carrier knows about you.)
You should be using a digital contact-tracing app. Yes, it tracks you, but in the most harmless of ways. It is also the only app on your phone that has the potential to save your life and the lives of others.
This won’t be nearly enough, of course. Testing is still too slow, there are too many asymptomatic carriers, and the virus has already spread too far, too fast. Effective digital contact tracing requires at least 50-60% of a given community to use the app. Low adoption of existing apps make it pretty clear that isn’t going to happen. Keep in mind, app developers routinely pay up to $10 to acquire a single user. There is no way the government is going to pay for that. Even so, something is better than nothing. And the data the state collects can help chart the outbreak and enable us to assign resources to respond to it.
As offices open back up, businesses are going to have to find their own way to test and manage the virus, and it probably won’t be app-based. Utah-based Blyncsy uses corporate Wi-Fi and the MAC addresses of connected laptops and phones to deliver automated contact tracing for businesses. These types of systems will be invaluable in opening colleges, factories, and corporate campuses where the institution can enforce adoption.
Contact-tracing apps are not a cure. And it is unlikely that this column will convince the folks who fear these apps to download them. If you are that worried about your privacy, check the permissions on all of the other apps on your phone first. At best, contact-tracing apps are part of a “swiss cheese” model of containment that inevitably includes social distancing, mask-wearing, and, eventually, a vaccine. That doesn’t mean you should use them, it means you should use every slice you can get.