Innovation Monitor: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Contact Tracing Apps

Innovation Monitor: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Contact Tracing Apps

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Welcome to the Innovation Monitor. This week, we’re thinking about contract tracing. As COVID-19 rages on throughout the country and the world, many governments are continuing to take preventive measures to reduce infection rates. We’re intimately familiar with social distancing, and understand the importance of wearing a mask and testing. So let’s turn our attention to contact tracing.

Contact tracing is a method of determining who might be infected with the virus by identifying and tracing all individuals someone with COVID-19 has interacted with in order for them to prevent additional transmissions.

This network, this lattice of transmissions is a complex order of magnitude that requires compliance, awareness, transparency, and a lot of labor. The process isn’t easy. After someone tests positive, a contact tracer asks who has been within six feet and for at least 10 minutes. Those identified are asked to self-isolate, and the tracing process starts over. This can quickly become overwhelming — two former federal health officials are suggesting an additional 180k contact tracing workers until a proven vaccine hits the market.

That’s why digitizing the contact tracing operation has become a powerful proposition. The estimate etched by the two former officials above would entail $12B in funding from the US government — why not just automate the task, alerting people who have been exposed with a device they already have? A number of countries have created contact tracing apps — Israel, China, Singapore, European countries, and plenty more.

As we’re well aware in 2020, technology isn’t the panacea for all that is overwhelming and laborious. In fact, it could make matters drastically worse — in some cases it has. That’s why in this edition of Innovation Monitor, we’ll take a detailed look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of contact tracing apps.

We’re excited to continue exploring trends and innovations like: fem-tech, gaming & the metaverse, space tech, AI & poetry, quantum computing, and AI & wellbeing. If there are topics you’d like for us to highlight, simply reach out to me (erica [at]!

At the NYC Media Lab, we consume a lot of…well….media. And there are certain things that make me tremendously excited. I’m really looking forward to Michelle Obama’s new podcast which is launching on July 29th. You can check out the trailer here. As always, we wish you and your community safety, calm, and solidarity as we support each other through this unprecedented time. Thank you again for reading.

All best,
Erica Matsumoto The Good

Let’s start with the “good” — generally balanced pieces that highlight positive aspects of digital contact tracing, but also take a close look at the issues that could arise.

  • Consumer Reports covers a system developed by Apple and Google that “enables states to build apps to alert people if they’ve been exposed.” The dive does a nice job of outlining the difficulties (accuracy, compatibility across states, agreeing on “how close is too close” and other issues) while highlighting potential benefits.
  • BBC covers Singapore’s wearable electronic tags, which complement the country’s existing contact tracing app (Singapore was the first country to deploy a national COVID-19 tracing app). According to authorities, around 35% of the population has downloaded the app, and the tag is given out on a voluntary basis… except for the country’s migrant workers. The piece does a nice job of balancing the innovation aspect and the serious privacy concerns and backlash.
  • Here’s an interesting hybrid approach from Knowledge@Wharton:
  • “We should be taking best practices from call centers, where human callers are supported by chatbots and information systems, supplemented with privacy-respecting apps on people’s phones that allow them to share information more easily and accurately. In the end, contact tracing is not an app, but a combined effort between technology, human tracers, and the general population.”
  • The UK’s track and trace app has been delayed until winter. The Next Web makes a good point: “Ultimately, it will be the public’s behavior that determines whether the app and track and trace system are successful.” How do you ensure widespread use and overcome the many barriers to downloading the app and self-reporting? The author suggests leveraging insights from behavioral science and incorporating them into the app’s development during the delay.
  • Two pieces cover the professional/office management side of things: NY Times on the multibillion-dollar opportunity of “Virus-Proofing the New Office,” and CNBC’s coverage of Salesforce’s new platform, which provides tools for workplace health and is in use in 35 states, according to CEO Marc Benioff.

The Bad

These pieces focus a more critical lens on contact tracing apps — what’s already wrong with them, and what could potentially go wrong.

  • Solutions are rushed and ad-hoc at best during the pandemic — which is understandable given governments want to take action before things get much worse. But in the case of contact tracing apps, countries could take cues from UK’s app delay and the backlash in countries like Singapore, which was the first to adopt the solution on a national scale. Norway’s data watchdog, for example, imposed an interim ban on the country’s Smittestopp tracing app, citing privacy concerns and unproven benefits. NY Times takes an investigative look at privacy and security flaws found in countries that have already deployed tracing apps.
  • Vox explores how racism is hampering contact tracing efforts. The author points out that “for any large-scale digital contact tracing system to work, people need to trust that their data will be handled safely.” But trust continues to wane in authorities: the BLM protests are a massive example (it may be the largest movement in the country’s history) and Black Americans are still the hardest hit (dying at 2.4x the rate of white people). Compound that with loose data privacy regulation and flagrant use of biased AI systems in the social justice system, and you have a recipe for distrust — and less inclination to work with contact tracers.
  • There are good reasons for that mistrust — besides existing issues mentioned above, there is also the very real possibility of mission creep, like contact tracing data getting into the hands of police. Brookings warns not to “enshrine” platforms and technology-driven solutions. In fact, data leakage and mission creep may be surface-level issues that don’t get to the root of the problem: the need for “structural reforms regulating the platforms themselves.” They describe “three major problems arising from uncritical deference to insufficiently regulated platforms” in their dive.

The Ugly

  • Things can get really bad. Here’s a chilling example:
  • “In one extreme case, some citizens who downloaded the BeAware Bahrain contact tracing app became contestants on a televised game show called Are You At Home? The show involved a host randomly video calling phone numbers of Bahraini individuals using government-collected data to check if they were adhering to social distancing guidelines and offering monetary rewards to those that were. By signing up for BeAware Bahrain, users were automatically enrolled into Are You At Home?, which is produced by state-controlled television channel Bahrain TV. (BBC now reports you can opt out of the show if you don’t want to run the risk of being called.)”
  • Another uncomfortable example hails from Vancouver, though to a previous collision of public health, privacy, and law enforcement:
  • “In the case of Vancouver Police Department vs. BC Centre for Excellence (BC-CfE) in HIV/AIDS, the Vancouver Police Department demanded private medical records from the BC-CfE in connection to an aggravated sexual assault case. In the case of Vancouver Police Department vs. BC Centre for Excellence (BC-CfE) in HIV/AIDS, the Vancouver Police Department demanded private medical records from the BC-CfE in connection to an aggravated sexual assault case.”

This Week in Business History July 15th, 1964: The first issue of The Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s first newspaper, is printed

From a second-hand printing press in Canberra, Rupert Murdoch watches the first edition of a newspaper he created roll off the presses. The paper was the Australian, with a declared purpose “to report the nation to Canberra and Canberra to the nation.” It was not only Murdoch’s first paper, it was the nation’s first national daily. For a deeper look at the launch, read coverage directly from The Australian.

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NYC Media Lab connects university researchers and NYC’s media tech companies to create a new community of digital media & tech innovators in New York City.