Why are there doubts over contact-tracing apps?

There are growing tensions over the best approach to coronavirus contact-tracing apps and whether or not the technology can live up to its promise. Smartphone software is being developed to alert users when someone they were recently near becomes infected.

There are growing tensions over the best approach to coronavirus contact-tracing apps and whether or not the technology can live up to its promise.

Smartphone software is being developed to alert users when someone they were recently near becomes infected.

But the Ada Lovelace Institute has said there is “an absence of evidence” such tools are practical, accurate or technically capable.

Others stress the initiative must be backed up by an army of human checkers.

To further complicate matters, a schism has emerged among technologists working together to develop a pan-Europe solution.

And hundreds of scientists and researchers have signed a statement warning “mission creep” could eventually lead to “unprecedented surveillance of society at large”.

What are the concerns?

Contact-tracing apps try to log every instance a person is close to another smartphone-owner for a significant period of time.

If any user is later believed to have become infected and records the fact, a cascade of alerts could instantly be sent to others.

Those deemed to be at high risk could be told to stay at home, while others could continue to live outside of a lockdown.

They employ a variety of methods, including keeping logs of users’ Global Positioning System (GPS) location data and asking them to scan Quick Response (QR) codes.

But earlier in the month, the American Civil Liberties Union¬†said: “We have spoken with engineers and executives at a number of the largest US companies that hold location data on Americans’ movements and locations and generally they have told us that their data is not suitable for determining who was in contact with whom for purposes of Covid-19.”

And many nations are now focused on using another technology – wireless Bluetooth signals – to detect contact matches.

This still offers a way to log close encounters but not where they occurred.

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