COVID19 & Contact Tracing
Everyone has heard the numbers, fear, grief, and disbelief. COVID19 has gripped the globe and taken the lives of nearly 120,000 Americans to date. The numbers don't include the approximately 50,000 deaths that are counted as "excess deaths" which are possibly COVID19 related, but not proven.
Recommendations have been in the form of quarantines, social-distancing, wearing masks, and contact-tracing in attempts to slow the spread of the virus. As Americans, we were faced with a total shutdown of our society, loss of employment, and loneliness. Despair gripped many families as they contended with unexpected deaths and an inability at times to grieve, or have end-of-life services to say good-bye.
We watched the news and the rise in numbers. Spikes of cases that overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes alike. We all participated in the shutdown, praying for a "flattening of the curve," in hopes of regaining some sense of normalcy. Now that states have been opening up again, the cases are beginning to rise again. Do we go back to a total quarantine?
What we haven't seen a lot of in the United States, but has been done in other countries, is contact tracing. There are available apps that work via our smartphones to help track where and when contact with positive cases occur. However, it isn't really that simple. Americans enjoy their freedom, their sense of anonymity, which they are already losing to battles with corporate snooping, and the idea of the government tracking their every move just isn't going over very well. Who can blame us for feeling this way? When has the government ever been entirely truthful about the data that it collects on citizens?
How Does Contact Tracing Work?
Contact tracing has been previously used successfully to contain SARS, Ebola, and other viral outbreaks across the globe. Contract tracing works by having a health provider work with an infected patient to go over their potential contacts with others over the prior two weeks. The health care worker will have an in-depth questionnaire and conversation with the patient to discuss with them all the places they have gone to, people they have been near, or other instances in which they may have the potential to spread the virus to others.
The second step is through available phone numbers or the health department; any people that may have been potentially exposed to the virus are contacted. They are given information about the virus, asked to self-quarantine for a minimum of 14 days, monitor for symptoms, and get tested if necessary. The point is to stop the spread of the virus. If this is done effectively, then the spread has the potential of not going any further. On a mass scale, contact tracing helps slow the spread by taking those we know have a possible risk of exposure out of the public, so the spread does not continue.
Researchers are putting out the word that no country, including the United States, will be able to reopen their society without enormous risk to the public health without initiating contact tracing and testing. According to Associate Director of Global Health Policy at the Kaiser Foundation Josh Michaud, "Without contact tracing and increased testing, we're going to be at risk of a resurgence of this disease -- not just in the fall, but going into next year."
Citizen, a tech company, launched by founder Andrew Frame in 2017, built an app that used your smartphone GPS data combined with 911 dispatch data to alert users of nearby dangers. His company is now jumping into the contact tracing business. According to Frame, "We're all at war. Right now, the only weapon we have is staying at home. The question is, are there better ones we can use in this war?"
Despite continuing spikes in virus numbers, states are opening up and pushing citizens to go back to work. The streets are filled with thousands of protesters, which could create a devastating future climb in death tolls. Citizen is releasing its new smartphone app, SafeTrace, a mobile contact tracer. It is designed to combine features of your phone's GPS and Bluetooth capabilities to alert the user when they have come into contact or near the vicinity of another user with the SafeTrace app that has received a positive test result. If another nearby user has discovered they are infected with the virus; then you would receive a text alerting you of the exact time and place where you may have had potential exposure.
One reason SafeTrace may be considered an effective tool is that it lives within the original Citizen program. Currently, the Citizen app already has over five million users across 18 major cities in the United States. In New York, which is one of the hot spots in the country, over 2 million residents already have Citizen installed on their smartphones, which is about 20% of the city's population. The updated – SafeTrace included – Citizen app is available for free from Google Play for Android users. iPhone users are waiting on Apple to approve the addition of the new tool.
As new cases emerge, health officials are demanding that legislators and the public wake up to what this genuine threat will mean, as the number of available hospital beds dwindles and the number of deaths continues to rise. Health departments across the country want some way to track the virus right down to the very address where it is located so they can find a way to control the situation.
It all sounds great, right? Hold on; this application wants to track your every move, where you go and whom you go near. Even though the company insists your information is anonymized and scrubbed, does it make it any easier? When the alert is sent out, is it not possible for the recipient to recall whom they were with at a specific time and place of potential exposure, thus creating an automatic breach of privacy? Is giving up privacy for safety ultimately a good thing? As Benjamin Franklin once said, yet still rings so true today, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
The truth is, Americans are not signing up in droves to be followed and monitored. It is against our better nature. There is no easy way to get anyone to freely sign up for governmental monitoring of our movements, tracking the places we go, and keeping notes on whom we may encounter throughout our day.
Is Your Privacy Protected?
Even the experts who create these types of apps are concerned. Both Google and Apple were initially praised by health officials when they announced that they would work together to build a contract tracing application. Medical experts quickly turned on them, changing their minds on the efficacy of what they would have to offer when it was announced that GPS data would not be used in their system. Top executives at both software companies had concerns about violating user privacy. These concerns have led to many disappointed health officials who insist that without this primary source of data, the application would be useless.
Since there is no federal mandate, the 50 states are coming up with their idea of what "contact tracing" means to them.
Worldwide, health officials want the public to know that this form of tracing is not just some type of jargon or talking point. Combining widespread testing with the ability to monitor those with positive cases is essential to controlling the spread of the virus. Without some sort of system, we may have to wait for a vaccine, continuing to lose lives until one arrives.
The makers of SafeTrace argue that without GPS providing clear, detailed information regarding the possible date, time, and place of exposure, that citizens may disregard warnings. However, given a clear picture of an exposure event that occurred on this day, at this time, in this business, or near this particular friend – then it makes taking action seem more imminent.
Most Americans are hesitant, even over the viral threat. The Washington Post, along with the University of Maryland, surveyed to discover that even with the Google/Apple application, which contains no GPS data, more than 50% of Americans say "NO." We value our freedom and our privacy. Frame, the founder of Citizen who makes SafeTrace, has come forward assuring that there is no need to fear their software. He claims the data collected is anonymous, encrypted, and erased after 30 days. The company makes no money from advertising, selling of data, and will refuse to share customer data with government entities without the user's consent. Is this enough of a guarantee?
Frame has also announced the formation of a nonprofit, that will control the data and partner with other available and state-run contact tracing programs. He is working with pharmaceutical companies to allow users access to at-home testing kits. If a user receives an alert that they have been near an infected person or hot zone, at that time, they can choose to order a test from home. Frame went on to explain the need for more participation. "For effective national tracking, the U.S. needs more than 60% of the population participating. That's not going to come from one app or one system. We're open to working with other programs that use anonymous and secure data to build a safe, open-source, national tracing system."
What Frame does not mention is that every application is 'hackable.' He would know. He began hacking systems in his teens and was caught hacking into NASA computer systems. He then took his computer software knowledge, built Facebook's network infrastructure, and then went on to create the now publicly-traded company Ooma. Everything is hackable.
Trust is a 5-Letter Word
Can Americans trust anyone with their data? Benjamin Franklin shared his wisdom with us on secrets, as well. "Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead." Two states, North Dakota and South Dakota, came together to use the Care19 app developed by a North Dakota software firm ProudCrowd. It was one of the first contact tracing applications made available in the United States. It was pushed by the governors by both states and touted as a safe-to-use technology.