US virus tracking: a patchwork of apps, human tracers
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by Rob Lever
Digital or manual? Bluetooth or GPS? Centralized or decentralized?
Efforts in the United States to track the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus — known as contact tracing — have become a patchwork based on differing approaches to technology and civil liberties.
Some US governors have shunned digital tracing efforts, instead hiring thousands of human contact tracers to locate people who have been near an infected individual.
Others see smartphone apps — which use Bluetooth wireless sensing and deliver automatic alerts when people have crossed paths with an infected person — as the only way to scale up the effort to reach people at risk of spreading the disease.
With both systems, concerns remain over privacy and government surveillance.
An Apple-Google platform designed with wireless Bluetooth beacons is aimed at easing the path to digital contact tracing by allowing smartphones using the two dominant systems to communicate with each other.
The system unveiled by the big tech firms this week has been made available to 22 countries but has been adopted so far for apps in just three US states.
Some jurisdictions are seeking centralized control through health agencies and to use satellite GPS location — which the tech firms won’t allow due to concerns over privacy and civil liberties.
Privacy activists are divided on the tradeoffs of mobile technology for virus tracking.
“We don’t yet know if any of these technologies will work, but we do know that we currently lack many of the protections needed to guard against abuse or overreach,” said Neema Singh Guliani of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit research group, said the Google-Apple system strikes the right balance on privacy because it keeps data on users’ devices until they choose to share it.
“Relying on such apps is in my view a potentially helpful supplemental safety measure that fills a gap created by the current challenges,” Polonetsky said in a blog post. (AFP)