It’s the question of the day: will contact tracing work? The short answer is yes, if we do it right. And since doing it right involves data privacy, data security, and data management –– right up our alley at Switchbit –– we created a three-part series on contact tracing challenges and solutions . To kick off Part I, here’s an overview video on how contact tracing works and what’s at stake. Read on for more.
A Tale of Two Countries
In mid-March, the United States and South Korea had each seen around 90 coronavirus deaths. By the end of April, however, the two countries were a study in contrast. South Korea lost just 85 more people to the pandemic — while the United States lost over 62,000 souls, at an average of 85 COVID-19 deaths per hour for the entire month.
The key difference between the two nations isn’t their size. It’s that from the earliest days of the COVID-19 crisis, South Korea implemented “virtuous surveillance,” or the use of digital contact-tracing technologies to track the movements of coronavirus carriers, identify people they may have infected, and help public health officials to break the chain of transmission.
Here in the U.S., we’re only now rolling out contact tracing at the start of May. Health experts are calling for a $3.6 billion push to support the effort, following successful examples in South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Some of America’s best and brightest, including engineers at Apple, Google, and MIT, are now developing the contact-tracing technologies to safely reopen our economy and avoid future pandemic crises.
But contact tracing isn’t just a technological challenge: it’s also a cultural one. To deliver results, we’ll need the American people to set aside partisanship and anti-scientific posturing, and actually use the contact tracing technologies that we develop.
The early signs are that winning the battle for hearts and minds could be a bigger challenge than developing effective tracing technologies. In fact, surveys show that 60% of Americans currently feel that location-based tracking would make next to no difference to our fight against COVID-19.
Those numbers are disheartening. But I believe they reflect skepticism less about the efficacy of tracing technology than about the likelihood of Americans collectively embracing a technology that’s explicitly designed to collect their personal data.
Paradoxically, Americans are willing to click away their data rights if it means they can share cat photos more easily, but they’re deeply skeptical about giving people in positions of authority permission to digitally track them. They’re also skeptical about sharing potentially sensitive health information with their neighbors. That’s understandable: people quite rightly consider their health, movement, and social interactions to be private, and right now the stakes are higher than ever.
We’ve already seen ugly cases of Asian-Americans being victimized for supposedly spreading the coronavirus, and fights breaking out after people cough in public places. Now imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone in a grocery store learned someone present had been exposed to the coronavirus — or if everyone in an apartment building discovered one of their neighbors had tested positive.
There Has to be a Better Way
For contact tracing to work at scale, we can’t dodge these critical questions of privacy, consent, and control. This isn’t an either-or situation: the idea that we can have privacy or public health, but not both, is a false choice. There has to be a better way.
Here at Switchbit, we believe that tech companies need to step up and help address this thorny issue, just as they are doing in developing the core technologies that make large-scale contact tracing possible.
MIT’s Private Kit has led the way by promoting the use of Bluetooth, not GPS data, to drive contact tracing. That approach — now implemented by Apple and Google in APIs for Android and iOS devices — allows apps to focus on tracking users’ proximity to one another, rather than their specific location. Using Bluetooth, apps can identify the people you’ve had contact with, without recording more sensitive information such as whether you met them at church or at the liquor store.
Bluetooth doesn’t solve every problem: it’s easy to imagine marketers using stationary Bluetooth beacons to piggyback on contact-tracing infrastructure to track shoppers passing through their stores, for instance. But such strategies are a step in the right direction, and a sign of the kind of innovation we’ll need to build a trustworthy tracing system that respects users’ right to privacy.
To ensure contact tracing success in the U.S., we’ll need robust, verifiable, and scalable privacy protections to win the buy-in that will allow us to scale this vital technology.
Fortunately, this is a challenge the tech industry knows how to solve. In my next blog post, I’ll dig deeper, and show how we can start to build a contact tracing infrastructure that combines both effective tracking and utterly trustworthy privacy protections.