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Can a brilliant idea fix a broken system? Dig into the details of Google and Apple’s blockbuster announcement on Friday to add contact tracing capability to billions of mobile phones and you’ll discover an ingenious solution. But, spoiler alert: It won’t be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the United States.
Contact tracing is an essential tactic in containing and combating the spread of infectious diseases. In the prototypical example, healthcare workers in Taiwan combed through the credit card receipts from a taxi driver who had become infected with the novel coronavirus and tried to warn all of the drivers’ recent customers to quarantine themselves. Now imagine that, instead of such a difficult and time-consuming tracing effort, which can’t even reach people who paid in cash, there was an instantaneous technological solution.
That’s the core idea of the program that Apple and Google are building into their mobile operating systems. Once operational, all phones constantly will emit coded identification tags using Bluetooth. At the same time, phones will record the tags of all nearby devices. The coded tags by themselves are untraceable and anonymous. But when someone finds out they have coronavirus, the infected person triggers the system to tell every phone that recorded one of their tags that the owner may have been in proximity to them. It all works through the brilliance of the same encryption technology that powers e-commerce, bitcoin, and coded emails.
Launched into a worried world filled with people who have learned not to trust big tech companies, the plan immediately met resistance. Some feared the system could be turned into a giant location tracking tool. A possible counter: Aside from the fact that Apple, Google, and too many others already have that capability, the new system relies on past proximity, not recorded locations. At the other end of the spectrum, some argued that the system wouldn’t be used enough to be valuable, citing the low uptake of a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app in Singapore. Counter: The Apple-Google solution will be built into the operating systems of every phone and connected to national health agencies’ efforts.
The big problem with the Apple-Google plan is that it exists within a deeply flawed U.S. government response to the pandemic. Without adequate testing, infected people won’t know that they are infected and won’t be able to warn others via the smartphone system. And without adequate social distancing and quarantines, containment through contact tracing will be overwhelmed by community spread.
The best hope for the new system may be after the pandemic has passed its peak and the country is getting back to work. In a situation with many fewer people vulnerable to infection and the healthcare system no longer overwhelmed, high-tech contact tracing could find a role after all.
A bunch of you last week tried to read my colleague Danielle Abril’s excellent interview with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “Former Google CEO: The coronavirus pandemic will make Big Tech even bigger.” Unfortunately, I included the wrong link. Click on that headline today and I promise you’ll get the actual interview.