Engelbrecht Kruger Attorneys - Contact Tracing Apps

Contact-tracing apps are not a solution to the COVID-19 crisis

 · 4 min read

A number of thoughts around contact-tracing apps are presented at amongst others at Schneier on Security on 2020-05-02 and a Brookings essay at Tech Stream on 2020-05-01.

Bruce Schneier was quoted in BuzzFeed:

My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value," Bruce Schneier, a privacy expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, told BuzzFeed News. "I'm not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful? ... This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it's just techies doing techie things because they don't know what else to do.

Mr Schneier is of the view that contact-tracing apps presents a classic identification problem, and efficacy depends on two things: false positives and false negatives.

  • False positives: Any app will have a precise definition of a contact: let's say it's less than 1.8 meters for more than ten minutes. The false positive rate is the percentage of contacts that don't result in transmissions. This will be because of several reasons. One, the app's location and proximity systems -- based on GPS and Bluetooth -- just aren't accurate enough to capture every contact. Two, the app won't be aware of any extenuating circumstances, like walls or partitions. And three, not every contact results in transmission; the disease has some transmission rate that's less than 100% (and I don't know what that is).

  • False negatives: This is the rate the app fails to register a contact when an infection occurs. This also will be because of several reasons. One, errors in the app's location and proximity systems. Two, transmissions that occur from people who don't have the app (even Singapore didn't get above a 20% adoption rate for the app). And three, not every transmission is a result of that precisely defined contact -- the virus sometimes travels further.

Mr Schneier ask us to assume that you take the app out grocery shopping with you and it subsequently alerts you of a contact. What should you do? It's not accurate enough for you to quarantine yourself for two weeks. And without ubiquitous, cheap, fast, and accurate testing, you can't confirm the app's diagnosis. So the alert is useless.

Similarly, assume you take the app out grocery shopping and it doesn't alert you of any contact. Are you in the clear? No, you're not. You actually have no idea if you've been infected.

The end result, Mr Schneier presents, is an app that doesn't work. People will post their bad experiences on social media, and people will read those posts and realize that the app is not to be trusted. That loss of trust is even worse than having no app at all.

"It has nothing to do with privacy concerns. The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals, is just plain dumb."

Others - including the cyber-security expert Ross Anderson and AI entrepreneur Kai-Fu Lee - have also cast doubt over whether contact-tracing apps have any chance of success, and fear they could give "false hope" to politicians looking for a way out of lockdowns.

The Brookings essay calls the tech solution a "fragile digital solution". The essay further state that "we worry that contact-tracing apps will serve as vehicles for abuse and disinformation, while providing a false sense of security to justify reopening local and national economies well before it is safe to do so. Our recommendations are aimed at reducing the harm of a technological intervention that seems increasingly inevitable."

Ashkan Soltani, Ryan Calo and Carl Bergstrom is of the view that there is generally a very real concern that these voluntary surveillance technologies will effectively become compulsory for any public and social engagement. Employers, retailers, or even policymakers can require that consumers display the results of their app before they are permitted to enter a grocery store, return back to work, or use public services—is as slowly becoming the norm in China, Hong Kong, and even being explored for visitors to Hawaii.

The Brooking essay goes further and submit that taken with the false positive and “griefing” (intentionally crying wolf), there is a real risk that these mobile-based apps can turn unaffected individuals into social pariahs, restricted from accessing public and private spaces or participating in social and economic activities. The likelihood that this will have a disparate impact on those already hardest hit by the pandemic is also high. Individuals living in densely populated neighborhoods and apartment buildings are likelier to experience incidences of false positives due their close proximity to one another.

Lawmakers, for their part, must be proactive and rapidly impose safeguards with respect to the privacy of data, while protecting those communities who can be harmed by the collection and exploitation of personal data. Protections need to be put in place to expressly prohibit economic and social discrimination on the basis of information and technology designed to address the pandemic.

Academics in the United Kingdom have proposed model legislation to prevent compulsory or coerced use of these untested systems to prevent people from going back to work, school, or accessing public resources. The prospect of surveillance during this crisis only serves to reveal how few safeguards exist to consumer privacy, especially at the national level in South Africa.

The issue is receiving fairly extensive attention, see for instance-




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