Bluetooth Contact Tracing Applications Have a Hard Road Ahead

4 min read
May 8, 2020
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Contact tracing is as old as germ theory. If you know that little infectious bugs jump from person to person, it makes sense to track down infected people and those they had contact with. Done well, contact tracing could help us reopen our economies and prevent a new wave of infections. Early on in the pandemic, researchers presented the case for using smartphones to help automate key parts of contact tracing. The promise is still there, but it’s been a rough start.

Updating contact tracing for a time when most of us have hyper-connected computers in our pockets is proving harder than expected. It requires not only the technology, which is available, but also the cooperation of governments, businesses, and citizens. Countries all over the world are working to put these apps into action, but most are still in testing. Those that are in use haven’t gained a large enough user base to be as useful as they could be.

The crux of the problem is finding a way to anonymously report possible contact with infected individuals, to the people concerned and, maybe, to some central authority. This has to be done in such a way that 60% or more of citizens will install the app. For countries with the legal power to track any citizen without their consent, this isn’t a problem. But in many western democracies, trying to find the proper balance of privacy and public health has led to conflict.

Another issue is that these apps won’t work alone. They are part of a bigger operation including manual contact tracing, testing, and treatment. Health systems in most countries aren’t known for their operational agility, probably due to the fact that they are huge organizations with decades of institutional inertia.

The situation in France illustrates well the many possible problems that can come up. France, like most countries, has opted for a Bluetooth contact tracing approach. This means that only close contact between devices is registered. The contact tracing app wouldn’t have access to GPS location data. France’s first problem has been with Apple and Google. The tech giants have their own idea for how contact tracing should be done to properly protect their users’ privacy. France’s leaders don’t agree and have tried to force their own approach, which would give the French authorities more control of the data. As any developer knows, such a fundamental dispute can mean costly delays for a complex software engineering project.

The second problem in France is one of perception. Creating a tracking app for an entire country is bound to be difficult and generate controversy. That is especially the case now, when the speed of implementation is so important. The problem is that controversy creates doubt. That doubt lowers trust. France can’t force its citizens to install this app, so it is crucial they trust that the app is safe and effective. A recent interview about the French StopCOVID app, with a key government minister, ran with the headline, “StopCOVID: The government’s digital failure?” Trust is already in short supply.

The last problem will come after the apps are released. How will governments use them? Will they be seen as effective? Will they be bug-free? The results of the implementation will be key to convincing as many people as possible to install the app. The Economist reported a few weeks ago that in Iceland, only 40% of citizens have installed that country’s contact-tracing app. To be maximally effective, other countries will have to do better.There’s a chance that this technology will only be fully ready for the next outbreak of a deadly virus. Now that we’ve seen just how devastating a modern pandemic can be, we’ll hopefully be more prepared the next time that the threat of one appears. Being prepared in this case means that the technology is ready and businesses, governments, and citizens have already agreed on how to best use it.