Tracing, Tracking, and Trust: Why Tech Is on the Sidelines in Contact Tracing

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The world is on pins and needles waiting to see how sharply the numbers of COVID-19 cases spike as societies try to return to some semblance of normal activity. Globally, the numbers are not encouraging, as countries from Brazil to Pakistan are experiencing skyrocketing numbers of cases. In the U.S., some states that relaxed quarantine rules earlier in the pandemic are witnessing a surge of people testing positive for Covid-19. 

How to best fight back against the virus? Two words are instrumental: contact tracing. Simply defined, it relies on personal data, for example zip codes, to alert citizens on whether they’ve been exposed to Covid-19 and control its spread. US public health experts have called contact tracing an integral piece of the puzzle in lifting lockdown measures. Governments around the world have begun to adopt contact tracing for the purpose of tracking and reining in Covid’s spread. 

Technology can and will play a significant role, as tech firms develop apps and contact tracing systems via citizens’ smartphones. Even Apple and Google have cooperated by releasing a software tool that helps countries set up apps, and Virginia became the first US state to deploy the technology this week. 

The big question is whether these tools can overcome a mountain of privacy concerns and issues, since their main function is to track a person’s whereabouts and relay that information in many cases to a central database. The key word here is trust. And at this early point in contact tracing for Covid-19, there appears to be very little of it. 

Evidence from Singapore’s app TraceTogether shows just 12% of the 5.7 million-person population installed the app in the first few weeks, well behind the UK’s optimistic target of 60% of 67 million, or 40 million. Norway recently stopped all electronic contact tracing and deleted all the data gathered, citing a disproportionate intrusion into users’ privacy because tracing systems were gathering location data as well. 

A number of U.S. states that had planned to incorporate app technology in their contact tracing plans have backed off. Most of the country seems headed in a low-tech direction, relying mostly on humans and telephones to track down infected citizens. 

Why the resistance? Mainly, multiple instances of data breaches committed by governments, corporations, platforms, and even data warehouses have eroded the trust citizens have when forking over sensitive and personal information. The resistance only increases as a result of Americans’ strong resistance to being told what to do, which manifested in widespread protests against mandatory quarantine restrictions in several states.    

How can this resistance be overcome? Companies and government organizations asking for personal information must build trust from the very beginning. High rates of consent require clear information to users about exactly what data citizens will share and how this data will be used and protected. The decision to then opt in or not must be completely up to the citizen and carry no consequences. Once given, any consent must be wholly traceable. That means it is documented, stored, and available for review should any dispute arise about its validity. Finally, citizens should retain the right to revoke this consent at any point immediately and easily, retaining control of their data and privacy throughout.

Data collection and usage on this scale require explicit consent to ensure adoption. Failing to address privacy and data protection concerns and not considering long-term data usage will seriously hamper the success of a national program even before it is rolled out.

Despite the fact that technology could help limit the spread of the virus that’s caused the greatest disruption to the global economy in modern times, tech may end up sitting on the sidelines. Citizens have to weigh data transparency issues against mitigating a health crisis, so businesses and organizations — no matter their focus — must work harder to re-establish trust and safeguard their users’ information. Because ultimately, it’s up to those users whether contact tracing apps succeed in the long term.  

Elie Kanaan is CMO of Ogury.