Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

What Happened to Digital Contact Tracing?

Chas Kissick, Elliot Setzer, and Jacob Schulz, Lawfare:

In May of this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged the United Kingdom would develop a “world beating” track and trace system by June 1 to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But on June 18, the government quietly abandoned its coronavirus contact-tracing app, a key piece of the “world beating” strategy, and instead promised to switch to a model designed by Apple and Google. The delayed app will not be ready until winter, and the U.K.’s Junior Health Minister told reporters that “it isn’t a priority for us at the moment.” When Johnson came under fire in Parliament for the abrupt U-turn, he replied: “I wonder whether the right honorable and learned Gentleman can name a single country in the world that has a functional contact tracing app—there isn’t one.”

Johnson’s rebuttal is perhaps a bit reductive, but he’s not that far off.

Natasha Singer, New York Times:

Pete Voss, a Google spokesman, said the virus alert apps that use the company’s software do not use device location. That’s including for people who test positive for the virus and use the apps to notify other users. The apps use Bluetooth scanning signals to detect smartphones that come into close contact with one another — without needing to know the devices’ locations at all.

Since 2015, Google’s Android system has required users to enable location on their phones to scan for other Bluetooth devices, Mr. Voss said, because some apps may use Bluetooth to infer user location. For instance, some apps use Bluetooth beacons in stores to help marketers understand which aisle a smartphone user may be in.

Once Android users turn on location, however, Google may determine their precise locations, using Wi-Fi, mobile networks and Bluetooth beacons, through a setting called Google Location Accuracy, and use the data to improve location services. Mr. Voss said apps that did not have user permission could not gain access to a person’s Android device location.

Apple, which does not require iPhone users of the virus apps to turn on location, declined to comment on Google’s location practices.

I imagine this is purely Google’s design for access to Android’s Bluetooth API, but what a mess. It is already impossible to explain the difference between contact tracing apps and the Apple and Google-created APIs that enable them.

Chiara Farronato, Marco Iansiti, Marcin Bartosiak, Stefano Denicolai, Luca Ferretti, and Roberto Fontana, writing for the Harvard Business Review:

One way to drive adoption is to mandate the use of the app — an approach that has worked in China. But in most countries where adoption is voluntary, the uptake has been low. For example, in Singapore, which guaranteed that adoption would be voluntary and that it would respect individuals’ privacy, only 35% of the population are using the app. In Iceland, the first country in Europe to launch its app (in early April), the adoption rate is still less than 40% as of July 8. And the adoption rates have been even lower in other European countries — despite the European Union issuing recommendations for a coordinated approach to design secure, protected, and interoperable contact-tracing apps in April.

I imagine mandating the use of a contact tracing app would be politically impossible in many countries. After weeks of the Albertan government encouraging mask wearing, the city of Calgary only just voted to require masks indoors as of August 1, but they are still not mandated province-wide. Even with its exemptions, plenty of people here are utterly furious and calling for resignations at city hall.