COVID Contact-Tracing Tech Is in Trouble

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The novel coronavirus pandemic has introduced us to a lot of new concepts and vocabulary in the few short (interminable???) months it's been with us. One of them is key to getting COVID-19 under control: contact tracing, which can help us isolate and quarantine potential carriers until they're well again. It involves a lot of detective work and dedicated human action — but it's possible it may get a big boost from technology.

Vox's Recode gave us an early look this week at what contact tracing could look like if it lived in our smartphones. The U.K.'s National Health Service is testing an app that exchanges Bluetooth signals with other nearby phones. If the app pings an anonymized identifier that's in a central database of known infected persons, that data goes to the NHS for further action.

There are some obvious problems with this method, namely that public health and personal privacy are very much at odds here. As one of the app's own developers put it, "An app that provides fantastic provable privacy but doesn't help stop the spread of the disease isn't a useful tool." The app requires widespread adoption in order to be any use, but when a similar program was rolled out in Singapore, only one-fifth of the total population downloaded it. Meanwhile, the NHS app is coming into conflict with a project in development between Apple and Google. Overall, we're eager to make COVID-19 spread prevention as easy and intuitive as possible — but much like a vaccine or cure, we just aren't there yet.