Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Ethics and Questionable Efficacy of Contact Tracing Apps

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

Sign me up! But, well… lots of buts. After speaking to health authorities, app makers, privacy experts and the teams at Apple and Google working to integrate contact tracing into smartphones — not to mention testing some available apps myself — all I can say is, “What a mess!”

Unlike other countries that have a national public health system, here in the U.S., each state or public health system will be deciding on its own apps. That could mean one app per state (if we’re lucky). It likely means incompatible apps using different technologies.

Some of the first apps — like one in Utah — ask for lots of personal information and don’t instill confidence about their privacy-protection practices. Tools in the works now from Apple, Google and others are much more privacy focused.

Stern’s piece includes a top-notch video, of course.

In order for these apps to have a hope of being effective for human contact tracers, they need wide adoption. Unfortunately, while mainstream reporting for the past few years has exposed the privacy failures of many big tech companies, very few policy changes have been made, so people are understandably untrusting of tech companies.

It will not be easy to persuade people that apps based on the Apple and Google APIs are safe. It is difficult to communicate what the difference is between apps and APIs, and it is hard to get people to trust something made by Apple and Google — even though the spec is open for others to verify its privacy bonafides.

Michelle M. Mello and C. Jason Wang, in a new paper published in Science:

A key question is how to ensure that companies and governments conducting and using epidemiologic analyses of new data sources are accountable for what they do. Democratic processes ordinarily help ensure that policy-making is reasonably transparent, the public has opportunities for input, and irresponsible officials can be removed. But many initiatives during COVID-19 have been undertaken by countries without strong democratic traditions and free-speech protections. Even in the United States, technological solutions are being pursued by small groups of officials and tech company leaders working outside ordinary channels and public view. The need to make decisions quickly may justify such processes but increases concerns about responsible practices.

The potential for misappropriation of data collected and methods developed for disease surveillance looms large. After all, the same approaches that can be used for case identification and contact tracing can be used to identify and track a government’s political opponents. Such fears undercut trust in what public health officials are trying to do, and without public trust and participation, many key strategies for fighting infectious disease cannot succeed.

My optimism for the efficacy of smartphone-assisted contact tracing has waned.

Update: The MIT Technology Review has a report on Iceland’s adoption of their own app — it’s at 38%, which is the highest of any app anywhere, but it is viewed only as supplementary to manual contact tracing efforts.