Perspective: The Promise And Peril Of COVID-19 Tracking

Apr 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred efforts to control the spread of the virus through development of innovative digital contact tracing tools. In Singapore, Israel and India there is already an app for that. In Europe there’s debate between two competing frameworks, which have names that sound like Star Wars’ droids: PEPP-PT and DT-3T. And in the US, Apple and Google recently announced collaboration on a contact tracing feature that will eventually be integrated with updates to the mobile device operating system. Although providing promising solutions, these technologies are not without problems.

First, the privacy protections for such systems need to be carefully scrutinized. The US currently does not have a general data protection law, like the EU's GDPR, that would permit government oversight and review of these contact tracing solutions. Second, contact tracing only works when a significant number of users opt-in and agree to use the technology.

But there is no guarantee that everyone will agree to use these apps. To make matters worse, digital technology is not evenly distributed. There is still a rather significant digital divide and the individuals less likely to have and use the most up-to-date mobile devices and services are precisely those who are at risk during this pandemic.

Bottom line is this: The best designed technological solutions are always complicated by user-side implementation factors that are often not fully considered or appreciated. Digital contact tracing can be an important piece in the puzzle, but it is not and should not be seen as a silver bullet.

I’m David Gunkel, and that’s my perspective.