Apps To Detect Coronavirus


SO, HERE’S THE Plan: Everyone installs an app, and anybody who tests positive for the coronavirus taps a button on the app — and then anyone who’s cross over paths with that person receives an alert. Sounds wonderful in theory, but practically there are lots of reasonable concerns, privacy and user adoption among them. And would it even thrive? Well, a super-squad of developers with backgrounds from Harvard, MIT, the Mayo Clinic, Facebook and Google are trying to find out.

The app, which is accessible for free, and was developed by a group of 43 tech workers and academics in their free time, is called Private Kit: Safe Paths and the beta can be downloaded now for Android and iOS.

Its developers claim to first and foremost tackle the privacy concerns of anyone using it by only sharing encrypted data culled by the app with a network that doesn’t have any type of central node. No one entity reserves all the users’ data. Rather, data transfer only happens at the choice of the users, with personalized access given to, say, researchers (or someone attempting to do contact tracing).

That still doesn’t solve the mitigating key issue of needing widespread adoption of the app, and they would need the support of a massive health organization to help it. The team behind Safe Paths have already pursued the approval of the World Health Organization:

[MIT Media Lab professor Ramesh Raskar] has been gathering other researchers and tech executives to the work, and he has been in contact with the WHO, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and. “They are giving us supervision on what will work,” he says, though none has yet approved the idea.

It isn’t the first time an app has been developed to possibly combat the spread of disease before, indicating to an app developed in 2011 by Cambridge University scientists known as FluPhone. The problem there? Just one percent of the people in Cambridge downloaded it.

One more obvious issue with widespread acceptance of an app like this isn’t a matter of choice so much as resources. The answer here, to a large degree, works on certain middle-class assumptions. We know there are huge swaths of the human population even in urban centers who don’t have phones, or people (like undocumented migrants) who would possibly hesitate at the idea of installing anything on their phone that keeps track of their whereabouts.

That said, these solutions, however vague and far-fetched, seem to be far approachable ideas than the glaring alternatives. For instance, the country of Israel, where as The Guardian reports, they just went ahead and decided to do, well, this:

Israel’s government has permitted emergency measures to track people doubted or confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus by checking their mobile phones, instantly raising privacy concerns in the country. The cabinet collectively approved the use of the technology – developed primarily for counterterrorism purposes – in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

In the meantime, as The Guardian also indicates, other supposedly less militant measures have resulted in not-so-great results. South Korea, for instance, went with…

…messages that track the movements of people who have lately been identified with the virus. “A woman in her 60s has just tested positive,” reads a usual text, “Click on the link for the places she went to before she was hospitalized,” it adds. Clicking on the link takes the user to the website of a district office that itemizes the places the patient had visited before testing positive.

Pointless to say, some possibly humiliating outcomes have risen from this approach:

As South Korean media pored over their movements, citizens looked on with a mixture of fascination and horror as their private lives were laid bare, leading to assumption that they were having an affair and that [a] secretary had undergone plastic surgery.

Maybe the lesson here is that we’re going to be better off picking how to help our communities do contact tracing, ourselves, before a choice — and a worser one — gets made for us.


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