Smartphone Contact Tracing & Privacy

Everyone I know is sick and tired of Covid-19, and we all are eager to regain some level of normalcy in our lives.  Unfortunately no one knows when that will be or what it will actually look like when we get there.  As cases continue to rise in many parts of the country, “contact tracing” has become a common part of our new vocabulary.

Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who may have come in contact with an individual with an infectious disease. The process involves identifying infected people, determining who they have been in close contact with while infected and asking people who are potentially infected to stay home until it is clear they are not sick.  Here's How Contact Tracing Will Work on iPhones and Android Phones ...

On April 10, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to use Bluetooth technology to help reduce the spread of the virus and assist with contact tracing.  The plan was to create a method where users could download apps from health authorities, and the app would utilize Bluetooth to “know” when another person with a smartphone with a similar app was in close proximity.  If one of these people tested positive, then some of the contract tracing for this person would have been gathered automatically via the health app.  While there are plenty of tech people writing articles about this, there have been almost no major news stories covering this development and collaboration.

For security and simplicity sake, we always recommend that people set their devices to “auto-update” which is they get operating system and security updates automatically.  If that’s you and you are running Apple iOS 13.5, then this feature is now on your phone.  If you get automatic system updates for your Android device and are running 6.0 or newer, then you’ve got it also.  You can find the app by clicking Settings on your smartphone.  In today’s hyper-partisan world, unfortunately people feel the need to take sides even on this issue.  Some are concerned about a potential invasion of privacy while others say we must improve contact tracing so to fight Covid-19.  As in many cases, there is some truth in both arguments.

If you’re concerned about privacy, this capability is turned off by default.  That could change in the future, of course, but Apple and Google want to protect their brands.  If a future version of their operating systems automatically turns this exposure tracing on, the privacy advocates will scream bloody murder and I expect it’ll cause business issues for these companies.

How to turn on/off COVID-19 contact tracing on iPhone - 9to5MacFor those hoping this technology will enhance contact tracing results, it seems the technology is a long way from delivering real results.  Singapore launched TraceTogether, the first country and application to use mobile devices for contact tracing.  The adoption rate was just over 20% of smartphone users, where an estimated 80% is needed to be very helpful.  If Singapore cannot get the required participation, it seems unlikely the US will anytime soon.

It would be great if technology could really stop or slow the spread of Covid-19, and perhaps future tools will be helpful.  For now, it seems that face coverings, social distancing, hand-washing and other CDC guidelines are most helpful.