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Coronavirus: Why are there doubts over contact-tracing apps?

BBC Technology 20 Apr 2020 03:21
By Leo Kelion Technology desk editor
Contact tracing appImage copyright Getty Images

There are growing tensions over the best approach to coronavirus contact-tracing apps and whether or not the technology can live up to its promise.

Smartphone software is being developed to alert users when someone they were recently near becomes infected.

But the Ada Lovelace Institute has said there is "an absence of evidence" such tools are practical, accurate or technically capable.

Others stress the initiative must be backed up by an army of human checkers.

To further complicate matters, a schism has emerged among technologists working together to develop a pan-Europe solution.

And hundreds of scientists and researchers have signed a statement warning "mission creep" could eventually lead to "unprecedented surveillance of society at large".

Contact-tracing apps try to log every instance a person is close to another smartphone-owner for a significant period of time.

Those deemed to be at high risk could be told to stay at home, while others could continue to live outside of a lockdown.

But earlier in the month, the American Civil Liberties Union said: "We have spoken with engineers and executives at a number of the largest US companies that hold location data on Americans' movements and locations and generally they have told us that their data is not suitable for determining who was in contact with whom for purposes of Covid-19."

This still offers a way to log close encounters but not where they occurred.

But critics warn this kind of system would be imprecise since some phones detect signals from up to 30m (98ft) away without being able to determine the distance.

As a result, the Ada Lovelace study says, many matches would be missed while others would be recorded by mistake.

"[And] digital contact tracing will be vulnerable to all forms of fraud and abuse - from people using multiple devices, false reports of infection, to denial-of-service attacks by adversarial actors."

How could manual trackers help?

But since the app won't be 100% reliable or used by everyone, experts say manual contact tracing still has a role to play.

Image copyright Getty Images

One organisation in Germany said it had already received more than 10,000 applications.

"They should already be putting out a call to medical and veterinary students, people who have lost their jobs and others want to volunteer and help," Prof Devri Sridhar, from the University of Edinburgh, told BBC News.

Why are there still privacy concerns?

But in many cases, where apps have yet to launch, they have yet to explain how they would do so.

"One obvious risk is that a person's close physical contacts could be accidentally or deliberately extracted from their phone and used for purposes unrelated to disease control."

The group applauded an initiative by Google and Apple that would make contact tracing easier on iOS and Android handsets but severely limit what information could be gleaned from it by the authorities.

"Users' privacy is crucial, which is why we are working with other countries, a range of experts, stakeholders and industry to ensure the app under development is led by the best scientific and clinical advice to reduce transmission of the virus whilst protecting user privacy," a spokesman said.

Before Apple and Google became involved, there was a separate initiative to create the technical foundations of a contact-tracing system that let would different countries' apps work together rather than becoming incompatible at each nation's borders.

Several of the participants have quit, citing a range of privacy concerns.

"[There was] a lack of any proper governance and transparency in a time where deep transparency is needed."

"We have publicly apologised for the way that communication around the two approaches that are under discussion has been handled," a spokeswoman told BBC News, adding it remained in discussions with more than 40 countries to adopt its solution.

Not everyone with a mobile phone will be able to use the apps deployed.

The UK figure is 12% - but many other people have more basic mobile phones with no access to the iOS or Android app stores.

"Either they are too old to use a smartphone, would find it complex, or rely on a hand-me-down model.

"I worry that it's the people who don't have [compatible] phones and are utterly in the blind spot of this and [the] people who do not have the luxury of worrying about getting sick because they simply need the money from their high-risk jobs that mean these apps will not get widely adopted," said data scientist Cathy O'Neil.

No-one thinks apps are the whole solution.

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Tags

Ada Lovelace InstituteBig Data InstituteMatt HancockProf Devri SridharAda Lovelace
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