Public-health officials have long relied on tracking infectious diseases as common as tuberculosis and as lethal as ebola as a way to stop their spread. But manual contact tracing requires boots on the ground—people to track down patients, interview them about where they’ve been and with whom they’ve met, then find those people and let them know that they’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive. If any of them test positive, their “contacts” must also be interviewed.
Technology-enhanced contact tracing—using smartphone apps and geolocation data, for example—could help cut down on delays in tracking contacts and potentially provide more accurate information to officials. After all, it can be hard for the very ill to remember who they met weeks ago at a dark nightclub or which bus driver they might have coughed on.
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So it’s easy to see why tech-enhanced Covid-19 contact tracing holds such great promise for public-health officials, politicians, and app developers. But with great data collection comes great responsibility, and experts worry that without proper planning, today’s decisions about developing contact-tracing apps could have unforeseen consequences in the years to come.
Multiple plans, but no clear winner
Contact-tracing methods and technologies vary widely. While Taiwan’s contact-tracing program has been hailed as a possible model for the United States, China’s program would be considered invasive by the West’s standards. Meanwhile, Israel is involuntarily collecting geolocation data, Singapore has built an open-source contact-tracing system based on Bluetooth beacons, and the United Kingdom is struggling to find its own way.
In April, Apple and Google announced their plan to jointly develop a decentralized Covid-19 contact-tracing system for Android and iOS (and which they have since renamed “exposure notification” to differentiate their system from manual contact tracing). It will use automatic Bluetooth interactions between phones to pseudonymously identify when a person has been in close proximity with an infected patient. As of now, Apple and Google are not making their own apps but building a cross-platform architecture that exposure notification app developers can use.
This story was originally commissioned by Dark Reading. Read the full story here.