Guest Column: The Use of Contact Tracing Apps to Manage Covid Pandemic

By Jack Warner

The Use of Contact Tracing Apps to Manage the Covid-19 Pandemic

Owing to the widespread of the Covid-19 cases across the world, app-based contacting tracing has emerged as a modern alternative to traditional tracking methods to help find new infections and support the return to normalcy.

Contact tracing apps are appealing in part due to the fact that the virus’s spread is very stealthy. Individuals infected with coronavirus can transmit it for days before they could develop any symptoms, and it could take others several days for the public health investigators to discover a case and validate it with testing.

Several public health authorities and tech giants all over the world have quickly adopted the use of contact tracing apps to help flatten the Covid-19 curve. Some states in the US have implemented their own apps, while the University of Washington has collaborated with Microsoft to come up with a new app that will help public health agencies.

The Effectiveness of Contact Tracing Apps

The efficacy of contact tracing apps has not yet been established. While it’s true that they can help slow down the spread of coronavirus, that can only happen if enough people use them. A study by Oxford University revealed that in order for them to be effective, contact apps have to be used by at least 60% of the population. Yet in countries like Singapore, only one in six people downloaded the app, which is not enough!

Another hindrance to the use of contact tracing apps is that the technology is meant to help identify individuals potentially exposed to the virus, who should voluntarily isolate. But, it seems the apps are only as strong as a particular country’s health system’s capability to follow up with identified users, test them, and provide support during the quarantine.

Also, the idea of self-reporting and self-isolation is fundamentally unreliable since some people may over-report symptoms, creating fake positives, while some won’t report completely for fear of being discriminated against.

Skeptics worry that these apps will only bring about a high-tech distraction. And, even advocates of the apps believe that to be most efficient, human contact tracers are still needed in the loop to conduct follow-up interviews.

Privacy Concerns

One of the biggest concerns of the use of contact tracing apps is privacy. A survey on Americans’ attitudes on contact tracing apps revealed that while 54% of the surveyed American population was willing to voluntarily use a contact-tracing app, there were still concerns about possible data misuse. 84% of the respondents believed that the government could misuse their data, while 79% feared that tech companies might do the same.

The partnership between tech giants—Google and Apple, though it seems to be coming from a good place, has garnered the most interest due to the companies’ past privacy incidences. Another concern is the planned use of Bluetooth tracking, which is more accurate than GPS, hence more invasive.

There is a lot of debate going on across the globe about what information and how much data an app should collect and share with the health care practitioners. The Chinese government, for instance, has taken phone tracking to a whole new level by monitoring people’s locations and purchases to assess their risk and limit their movement.

The use of automated GPS tracking in the US, India, Iceland, and South Korea are raising privacy concerns that may lead to legal confrontations in some countries.

In summary, it’s explicit that most Americans are ready to embrace the use of the contact tracing apps to curb the spread of the coronavirus. After all, such apps offer a low-cost, tech-based solution to an issue that would otherwise require lots of manual effort. What’s more, there are billions of smartphones to back it up.

However, it’s important that any contact app that plays a role in this battle must command the confidence and trust of both the public and medical fraternity. Tech companies and governments need to put clear limits and protection on contact-tracing efforts. On the other hand, citizens need to have a clear understanding of what they are sharing in exchange for the benefits that these apps bring.

The author is a technology specialist at Wyoming-based firm TechWarn.

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