Apps traces moves – Technology to combat COVID -19

Digital contact tracing, already underway through smartphone apps in other countries, could help contain the coronavirus pandemic in the US. Picture: AFP

As Fiji’s second wave of COVID-19 spreads almost unchecked, Government has turned to ramping up vaccinations and surveillance to counter the pandemic.

Apparently the use of borders, which I personally thought effective in restricting unnecessary movements and containing the pandemic, has been rejected by authorities as cumbersome to economic recovery.

Surveillance through contact tracing apps has been a tool in many other countries, but is the solution efficacious? This is the first, and crucial, question to ask about any action that infringes on privacy and civil liberties.

If a privacy and civil liberties-infringing program isn’t efficacious, then there is no reason to consider it further.

Determining whether surveillance will help combat the virus requires understanding how the coronavirus spreads and how mobile phone tracking works.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus spreads largely person to person.

The CDC reports that infection circulation happens “between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet or two metres)” and is the result of airborne droplets “produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes”. Yes, there are other ways for the virus to spread.

For example, someone could become infected “by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes”. But the CDC says that’s not the main way.

Many senior government officials believe that the location information that phones can provide will be useful in the current crisis.

After all, if mobile phone location information can be used to track terrorists and discover who robbed a bank, perhaps it can be used to determine whether you rubbed shoulders yesterday with someone who today was diagnosed as having COVID-19.

But such thinking ignores the reality of how phone-tracking technology works and holistic contact tracing in our society and culture. Let’s look at the details of what we can glean from mobile phone location information.

Mobile towers track which phones are in their locale—but that is a very rough measure, useful perhaps for tracking bank robbers, but not for the two metre proximity one wants in order to determine who might have been infected by the coronavirus. Finer precision comes from GPS signals, but these can only work outside.

That means the location information supplied by your phone—if your phone and that of another person are both on—can tell you if you both went into the same supermarket around the same time.

But it won’t tell you whether you were in the same aisles. The location information from your phone isn’t fully precise.

What’s more, many people won’t have the location information available because GPS drains the battery, so they’ll shut it off when they’re not using it.

Their phones don’t have the location information and neither do the providers, at least not at the granularity to determine coronavirus exposure. GPS is not the only way that mobile phones can collect location information. Various other ways exist, including Bluetooth for proximity information.

This is the technology that Fiji’s mobile careFIJI app uses for contact tracing – assuming the infected person is carrying a mobile phone with an active careFIJI app!

If the contact tracing surveillance apps lead to the government’s dogging people’s whereabouts at work, school, in the supermarket and at church, will people continue to be willing to download and use the tracking apps?

China follows this kind of surveillance model, but such a surveillance-state solution is highly unlikely to be acceptable in most other countries.

Yet anything less is unlikely to pinpoint individuals exposed to the virus to the detail required for effectiveness. Mobile phone tracking in many countries is not efficacious.

It cannot be unless all people are required to carry such location tracking devices at all times; have location tracking on; and other forms of information tracking, including much wider use of CCTV cameras, Bluetooth beacons, and the like, are also in use.

There are societies like this. But so far, even in the current crisis, no one is seriously contemplating heading in that direction.

Even I don’t carry my mobile phone to the corner shop for bread and newspapers in the morning – i.e. I enjoy my precious moments off the grid!

Holistically – to work well, contact tracing requires intimate knowledge about a community’s habits, and this is something the mobile apps aren’t able to take into account at present.

The apps have not been built to take into account the different ways different cultures live and the different ways the disease might spread across these diverse communities especially in Fiji’s settlements with multi-generational inhabitants making up many households.

Even these household members are continuously changing and unfortunately the use of masks and social distancing is practically non-existent within these settlements.

Most crucially, the tracing apps come up against an intractable problem: a broken domestic health-care system.

For a contact tracing app to be efficacious, it needs to exist within a well-functioning public health system. An app notifying of potential exposure is useful only if the notified person can isolate quickly and easily.

If a Swiss citizen receives an exposure notification from the SwissCovid app, for example, the Swiss government will subsidise staying home from work during the isolation period.

Fiji and other developing countries don’t offer similar support, and so faced with a positive exposure notification; many low-income workers would continue to go to work and then infect others.

The problem isn’t with the app; it’s with the lack of an underlying social infrastructure to support potentially infected people. We should be careful not to put too great an expectation on technology in preventing disease spread.

The real problem is the country’s lack of appropriate social and public health infrastructure. Similarly, it does not make sense to “try everything” just in case a technique—that is, tracking people’s mobile phone locations— might turn up some new exposed cases of the virus.

If the numbers of false positives (people wrongly identified as exposed) and false negatives (people exposed who are not identified by the system) are significant, the wrong people will be sent to health centers and people who should be isolated will not be told to do so.

Using data with high error rates can easily lead to distrust in government recommendations; yet trusting the government’s recommendation of wearing masks and social distancing is the most important step that all of us should be taking right now. And wearing masks and social distancing has the advantage that it can be implemented without phone tracking.

In such extraordinary times as these, as technologists and government officials develop programs for protecting the public; it is critical that the privacy and civil liberty implications of such programs remain fully front of mind.

But efficacy should always be the first issue to raise in the deployment of any technology, especially one that involves potentially serious risk to privacy and civil liberties.

If a proposed “solution” is not efficacious, there is no reason to consider the program.

The much more important action that has proven successful in containing the spread of coronavirus – for which surveillance wasn’t necessary – was to limit leaving home to essential purposes (buying food, seeking medical treatment, and the like).

This action if strictly enforced in Fiji will help flatten the curve and thus save lives; it is the crucial step to be taking right now if government is to pivot in their strategy in containing the coronavirus. Surveillance need not be ruled out as a means by which to address the coronavirus pandemic.

But implementing surveillance without the other measures that make it an effective public health response will not do much.

Efficacy first and foremost is the right measure; that principle must be held front and center as Fiji handles this pandemic. Otherwise, we endanger our health, our safety and our liberty.

As renowned physicist, Albert Einstein advises – “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning…”.

As always, God bless you all and stay safe in both digital and physical worlds.

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