Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Year and a Half After the Joint Exposure Notification Framework Was Launched, Its Effects Remain ‘Murky’

Gerrit De Vynck and Cat Zakrzewski, Washington Post:

But nearly two years later, as the omicron variant sweeps across the United States, adoption of the system is still far behind what its creators and proponents envisioned. More than 20 states don’t use it at all, including large states like Florida and Texas that have reported millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths. Even in states where millions have activated the notifications, only a fraction of people who test positive for the virus report it to the Apple and Google system. California’s system, for example, has been activated on more than 15 million devices, but only about 3 percent of the nearly 3.9 million cases reported since launch were logged in the system.

On Apple’s side, this framework arrived in iOS 13.5 as an optional feature, and was more deeply integrated in the system when iOS 14 shipped in September last year; it was pushed at a similar time through an Android system services update for devices running Marshmallow or later. That was pretty early in this pandemic. Around where I live, that was when it seemed like this pandemic could have been a relatively minor catastrophe, course-corrected by decisive and unprecedented public health actions.

Alas, it turns out that carrying on as though everything was back to normal in summer of 2020 was not a great response here or anywhere that was similarly incautious. In this midst of this was when the Canadian government launched its COVID Alert app, which quickly gained widespread adoption in every province except British Columbia and Alberta, where it remains unavailable. But it is hard to say how significant that is. While not abandoned, only 869 cases were reported in the app last month, even though thousands of cases were being reported every day.

Similarly, this Post report paints a bleak picture of the framework’s poor adoption in the U.S., which Karen L. Howard of the GAO blamed partly on a lack of privacy protections in U.S. law. But I have had a hard time finding similar information about other countries’ responses.

The Apple–Google exposure notification framework is the system adopted by national COVID apps in Germany, Ireland, and Switzerland, where there are much stricter data privacy laws than in the U.S., which has perhaps played a role in driving higher adoption rates. Even still, finding evidence that this framework has played a meaningful difference in this pandemic is hard to come by. Irish authorities were understandably proud of their country’s rapid adoption rate, but a report earlier this year found that only a quarter of cases in Ireland were registered in the app.

Update: A reader from New Zealand pointed me to a story about that country’s exposure notification efforts. It is unfortunately similar in substance, but gives more context about the framework’s lacklustre performance.