Does App-Based Contact Tracing Really Work?
Asia Pacific countries illustrate what it takes for app-based contact tracing to make a difference
By Sharon Lewis
Authorities, organizations, and innovators across the world are trying to whip out solutions in order to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the latest is a specific kind of app technology.
A few factoids and conversations have been doing the rounds in WhatsApp groups across the globe on how apps can function as response mechanisms to take the edge off the pandemic’s devastating socioeconomic impact. Some, such as pulse oximetry apps, did not land very well. With contact tracing, however, authorities feel like they may be on to a legitimate solution.
Among Asia Pacific countries, which were the first to launch contact tracing apps, Singapore, Australia, South Korea, China, and Taiwan have all taken to the technology. The latest to join the app-based contact tracing bandwagon is India, where several tech startups banded together to develop the Aarogya Setu app pro bono for the government – the app then became the world’s fastest to reach 50 million downloads within two weeks of launch.
The basic premise
Contact tracing apps rely on Bluetooth signals from phones. A phone emitting a Bluetooth signal will register a record of other phones in their vicinity that have their Bluetooth turned on. This, in turn, creates a database of all the phones, and thereby their owners, that the user has been in physical proximity with over a set period of time.
This is a skeleton diagram of how such an app works, but countries have adapted this foundation as they have seen fit. China uses its contact tracing apps to bracket users into different health ratings. Someone with who has traveled to a highly infected country, or who has come into contact with a COVID-19 patient, for instance, will have a poor rating.
While China has only disclosed a limited number of the parameters, one of them is that authorities are using the app to control access to public services. Users must scan a QR code to determine if their rating is safe enough for them carry out certain actions, such as getting onto a public bus or entering a shopping mall.
Data privacy remains a question mark
India has mandated the use of their contact tracing app Aarogya Setu for several sections of the public, including government workers. The problem is that the app, like many of its counterparts, also tracks the user’s location.
Users are looking at contact tracing with a good degree of suspicion over concerns that governments can violate privacy rights by potentially harvesting user data from the app.
While several governments have declared that no such move will be made, the fact that data breaches and cybercrime have led to the theft of over 9.7 billion data records worldwide in the last seven years inspires little confidence.
Tech behemoths Apple and Google have also jumped into the game in a joint effort to build a contact tracing application program interface (API) that they say will only be available to public health authorities. The API entered beta testing last week. The tech giants have made clear that the API will anonymize users and not support location tracking.
A call for collaborative action
Another major challenge with such apps is that in most countries they are opt-in. This means that people will have to voluntarily join the app en masse, and proactively update it if they find out that they have been infected. It is not only a huge administrative task, but a massive experiment in trust.
A month after its launch, only around a fifth of Singapore’s 5.7 million population had installed its contact tracing app TraceTogether as of April. Officials say that for the app to work, at least 75% of the population needs to be using it.
Additionally, Bluetooth contact tracing alone may not provide adequate information. Some reports say that phones must be beside each other for at least 10 minutes to register a trustworthy signal.
Conversely, phones could register a signal from another person, even if they were on the other side of the wall. How close is close enough, and how long should phones be close together are questions this technology answers ambiguously at best.
Support systems that take a human-centric approach to the app can tilt the balance more favorably. Taiwan’s strategy is a good example of such an approach to contact tracing, and the larger goal of mitigating the infection’s spread.
Civic bodies, entrepreneurs and government authorities in Taiwan collaborated on a slew of digital solutions that helped effectively ‘flatten the curve.’ Apart from helping the public locate supplies of masks and allocate rations to those who need it most, they also use app technology that combines location tracing with government databases such as public health records to enforce quarantines.
Contact tracing is by no means a cure for all ills. However, countries such as Taiwan and South Korea have demonstrated that, coupled with widespread testing, social distancing, limiting inter- and intra-country movement, and strict hygiene practices, the tech can prove effective.
This is especially useful for countries that have not seen as widespread an infection, or where the rate of infection is declining, provided they have adequate testing capabilities. App technology that is secure, reliable, and hack-proof can augment the global defense against COVID-19.