Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Contact Tracers: Is The Next Data Wave A Friend Or Foe?
Contact tracing is a buzz term at the moment that is popping up everywhere, but what exactly does it mean, and should we be worried about it? The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world to it’s knees, with various forms of lockdown, and deep economic impact, sending shock-waves across communities world-wide. Debate rages as to whether measures taken are too much, or nowhere near enough. Meanwhile, governments weigh up avoiding overwhelmed hospitals with greater risk to human life, risking deep economic shock and the catastrophic potential it implies, and finally — the part where contact tracers come in — how far it is reasonable to digitally encroach on privacy in order to slow the spread of the virus. On the one hand, it makes sense to harness technology in order to save lives, and get everyone back towards normality as quickly as possible. On the other, how does what we accept in trade stand up to scrutiny?
What Are Contact Tracers?
The idea of contact tracing is nothing new — this is a honed tactic that has been employed over decades as a response to infectious diseases. Historically, contact tracers were people, rather than programs, who upon identifying someone infected would race to track down anyone that might have come into contact with them, in order to stem the spread of a disease. What makes the current wave of contact tracing different is that we have never come close to even a fraction of the scale being called for today, and in order to meet the scale envisioned, contract tracing is going digital.
The task will be performed by apps on our smartphones, rather than human beings. Of course, an army of living, breathing contact tracers have been recruited over the Coronavirus crisis so far, working to pin-point those who have flown with Covid-19 carriers on aeroplanes, or were at the same venue from which a cluster emerged. Such efforts have been reactive — an effort to contain. In contrast, contact tracing apps are pro-active. They aim to get ahead of the virus, and allow life-as-we-knew-it to resume — or at least something like it.
The Race To Trace Covid-19
Since the outbreak began, a wave of developers have set about creating apps to monitor branching infection. Perhaps the most astounding thing to come out of this effort is an entirely unanticipated collaboration between two giants. In order to roll out contact tracing on a scale of efficiency previously unimagined, world-dominating competitors Google and Apple chose to collaborate. In practical terms, this makes fantastic sense. The devices we carry in our pockets are almost universally run by software from one or the other. Their joint involvement would mean the capacity to reach billions with ease, and would incorporate the necessary access to devices’ Bluetooth with far fewer barriers.
While Apple and Google’s API project doesn’t include developing the front end of tracing apps — or deciding how to assess the validity of reported infections, or the quarantine strategy that follows — it does offer a delivery system upon which such apps could be created and, crucially, that would allow different apps to interact with one another. When running such an app, smartphones perform a digital handshake with other devices within range, reflecting those who are close enough to spread infection, via Bluetooth Low Energy connection. This allows the creation of a contact database that could be later cross-checked against those who have tested positive for the virus.
International Controversy And Division
Contact tracer apps have been put into action in some countries already, while in several others testing is underway. Singapore and South Korea have reported success in using tracing apps to steer their pandemic response. In the west, trust and security concerns have become central issues, and complex factors to resolve before apps can be delivered. In China, contact tracing technology has been notably invasive with citizens’ identity, location, and payment history incorporated, so that police can identify those who have broken quarantine rules. In contrast, Google and Apple’s API intends to track possible infection, and nothing more. Apps are set to be encrypted and anonymous, although a substantial stumbling block has still reared it’s head on the road to success.
The Google/Apple model, and others like it, propose to store databases of those who have had contact on each individual’s device. When someone reports their infection to the system, your device would receive and check an encrypted key that identified them against your personal list of prior contacts, and warn you if you needed to self isolate. In contrast, app models given preference in countries like the UK and France are set to store contact databases centrally, reaching out to those who pop up as at-risk. Why does this matter? On one side of the scale, a centralized database will allow national bodies to monitor infection patterns. On the other, centralized databases may make it easier for individuals to be identified, and for data to be hacked. For those curious, MIT Technology Review are maintaining a tracking database of their own, collecting data on what types of contact tracing apps are being rolled out where, and what their credentials are in terms of transparency, data retention, voluntary nature, and more.
Are Contact Tracers Cause For Concern?
Despite the all-hands-on-deck avalanche of app development, our most burning questions do not yet have a clear answer. How many people will use these apps, and how many will be necessary for them to make a real difference is as-yet unquantified. Similarly, what data is being collected, who it will be shared with, and how it might be used in the future is as inconsistent off the blocks as ultimately unknown. What is fascinating to observe within the Coronavirus chaos is that a great deal of cultural reinvention appears to be taking place, which may trickle into big-tech strategies.
As Google and Apple — those simultaneously pervasive and not-entirely-trusted presences in our lives — work together, they have also made great efforts to address the privacy concerns of the public. Most recently, the two giants publicly pledged to ensure that their own tracing API would be shut down when the pandemic is over. Perhaps, in the midst of such a pivotal moment for civil liberties, our relationship with big-tech in terms of trust and transparency can be reinvented. What we surrender, and what we stand to gain, are worth paying attention to. Indeed, our engagement may be vital in steering what tomorrow’s post pandemic world will look like.
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