Kathia Damian — COVID-19 Blog

Exposure Notifications, Digital Contact Tracing, and the Burden of Responsibility

June 2, 2020

Apple and Google have rolled out mockups of what they are coining “Exposure Notifications.” The goal of Exposure Notifications is similar to digital contact tracing in that their goal is to curb exposure to the public from a suspected or confirmed patient. The type of tracing proposed by Apple and Google is Proximity Tracking, which would use Bluetooth to track an individual’s exposure to cases. As noted by the CDC, bluetooth digital contact tracing needs to be widespread for it to be effective. The shift from naming the technology Digital Contact Tracing to Exposure Notification is interesting to note. The friendlier sounding “Exposure Notifications” suggests that Apple and Google understand many Americans’ feelings towards privacy and are trying to appeal to the general population to promote widespread usage of this API. Furthermore, whereas digital contact tracing is part of a multi-pronged approach and requires resources with which to follow up, Exposure Notifications can be free of these expectations.

Digital contact tracing is part of a series of steps to help curb exposure and Exposure Notifications shouldn’t be understood as a stand-alone solution. We recently conducted an interview with Professor Joan Donovan, faculty at Harvard and Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Prof. Donovan expressed concerns that: “Contact tracing is another one where technology isn’t going to be effective without humans who can explain to you what it means to be exposed and what your risk is, and can talk you through where it might have happened.” Here Prof. Donovan outlines the importance of human labor in the functionality of digital contact tracing. According to the CDC, in order for contact tracing to be effective it “will need to be linked with timely testing, clinical services, and agile data management systems to facilitate real-time electronic transmission of laboratory and case data for public health action.” Yet, Exposure Notifications end at alerting someone they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and includes only minimal follow up. While alerting an individual of potential COVID-19 exposure is important, the question becomes what resources will be provided for someone exposed and who will be responsible for the follow up? Exposure Notifications shift this responsibility on the individual.

Prof. Donovan went on to explain that digital contact tracing, if not done effectively, may further deteriorate public trust in experts during a pandemic. Since cell phones can detect Bluetooth signals through walls, with Exposure Notifications people may be alerted despite not having been exposed, giving rise to false positives. This may lead to further skepticism of the immediacy and danger of the virus. Prof. Donovan expressed concerns about the implementation of digital contact tracing without the proper follow up, “Without a robust infrastructure for talking to people about what you’re getting notified about, it’s going to be in a huge disaster…We also know the other part of this, which is that to have been in the same place and someone doesn’t necessarily automatically lead to infection, there’s going to be a lot of questioning. There’s going to be again another round of skepticism and inquiry that we need to be ready for and we need to be prepared for and we need to be able to answer people’s questions.” Looking over the Apple and Google’s  Exposure Notification Blueprint it becomes obvious where the limitations lie: in the follow up. Exposure Notifications place the burden of responsibility on the individual. This is a myopic fix because lowering infection rates goes beyond the individual, it requires many parts of the public health system working successfully in conjunction.


Privacy During a Pandemic: Digital Contact Tracing and Technosolutionism

May 13, 2020

Early last month Google and Apple announced a joint effort to use digital contact tracing to aid in slowing the spread of COVID-19. They’ve recently announced a mock-up of what the digital contact tracing software would look like and are optimistic about being able to roll out this new technology later this month.  According to the CDC, Contact tracing is meant to support a patient with confirmed or suspected illness through tracing the people who they’ve had contact with. The people who have been in contact with the patient are alerted, advised to maintain social distance, and track their symptoms for 14 days after last contact with the patient.

So far, the CDC has proposed two types of tracking using digital devices. The first is Case Management, which will capture data on cases and contacts. The goal is to use contact information to notify and follow-up with an individual who may have been exposed. Secondly, they’re proposing Proximity Tracking which would use Bluetooth or GPS to track an individual’s exposure to cases. It would require community wide adoption for proximity tracking to work effectively.

Yet many are weary of digital contact tracing as part of a“technosolutionsim” which places a tremendous amount of faith in technological solutions without considering repercussions on the most marginalized. “Efficient” has become a dog whistle word which allows Silicon Valley to operate without traditional checks. There are several obstacles facing the implementation of digital contact tracing.The most pressing is the effectiveness of contact tracing given the lack of testing available. The CDC has outlined contact tracing as a multi-pronged approach, and without widespread testing digital contact tracing is a meandering in the direction of a solution instead of a coordinated approach toward controlling the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, there’s the issue of false positives. The proposed apps will be using Bluetooth, and because cell phones can detect Bluetooth signals through walls, people may be alerted despite not having been exposed. Lastly, given recent debates staking market vs lives, will contact tracing be used to provide a false sense of security providing justification to open up the economy before it is safe to do so?

In an upcoming blog post, we will take a deeper look at the app proposed by Apple and Google to understand the merits and pitfalls of adopting digital contact tracing into our daily lives. We will further explore the “why” in the creation of this app. Is digital contact tracing an effective solution, or is it Silicon Valley guilt appeasement? More information on understanding the logistics of this app, as well as the importance of balancing public safety and privacy during a pandemic will be available in forthcoming blog posts.

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