(Photo by SAM PANTHAKY / AFP) (Photo by SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images)
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Three months ago I was asked to go on a radio show here in the U.K. and discuss the idea of using our smartphones to help with contact tracing. I was very positive about how easy it would be, and how important the idea was. I could never have predicted that by mid-June, contact tracing apps would be mired in the debacle that we find ourselves in: there are over 100 different contact tracing apps under development across the globe, and these are just the ones advertising themselves to the world. From what I can tell, most major universities across the globe are currently in the middle of building their own app, to get their staff and students back on campus and so prevent their own financial collapse.
So how did we get here and where is it all going to end up?
The biggest problem by far has been caused by the difficult fact that contact tracing is inherently an invasion of privacy. This is completely unavoidable. “Tell me everywhere you have been, everyone you have been with, and their contact details” is a pretty good example of an invasion of privacy, and pretty much the exact definition of contact tracing. And so it was inevitable that trying to develop a privacy-centric contact tracing scheme was never going to really be useful to the actual contact tracers. This is why there is such a big delay in the rollout of these apps – Google and Apple are determined to provide tools that prioritise privacy for the individual over utility for contact tracing services – with the result that health services and contact tracers are having to develop workarounds or go their own way and develop apps that don’t use Apple and Google’s new tools.
Why such a heavy-handed approach to protecting our own privacy for us (as opposed to allowing the user to choose for themselves which type of app they want to use)? It appears to be due to concerns that some governments are going to use contact tracing apps as a tool to surveil their inhabitants. There is a problem with that stance however: that particular cat is so far out of the bag that its ancestors can no longer remember why it was in there in the first place. For more than two decades it has been trivial for any suitably-motivated government to install equipment called Location Measurement Units in the telecommunications networks of their countries to monitor the location of cellular devices connected to the network using the cellular signals being emitted by the phones every time you call, text, or use the internet. In the early days of the E-911 mandate in the U.S. (laws requiring operators to be able to locate emergency calls on cellular phones) the telcos in the U.S. all needed to deploy these systems, and over time they switched to using the GPS chips in all cellular phones instead to provide location during an emergency call. Whistleblower Edward Snowdon of course famously provided even richer information on a variety of snooping methods that have been deployed in connected devices over the years.
Fundamentally: if you don’t want to be in the state-sponsored mass-surveillance game, then don’t be in the mobile and internet businesses.
The biggest failing of all has not been the creation of APIs by Google and Apple that are still not yet fit for purpose, but rather the missed opportunity for them to promote and help to build a single open-source app for the whole planet that every country, workplace, university, school, etc uses, ensuring interoperability and a single crowd-sourced robust app that everyone is putting their energy into.
That would be much better than thousands of developers working on hundreds of different apps all doing slightly different things full of their own bugs and proprietary problems. But sadly more problems are on the horizon. Soon there will be dozens of fake or malicious apps, claiming to be contact tracing or proximity detection, that are actually harvesting data or setting the users up for scams when they are phoned up by people claiming to be contact tracers, ready to extract social security numbers and other personal details, or worse, banking information.
What I’m still intrigued by is how silent Amazon have been on the whole thing. Maybe Jeff Bezos is preparing to swoop in and rescue us all with a fantastic made-for-purpose proximity detection and contact-tracing extension for the Amazon Prime app that will knock the socks off everything else. And let’s be honest, he already knows where we all live anyway.
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