Emerging challenges of contact tracing tech in war on Covid-19

As much as governments and companies are excited about the use of contact tracing apps in helping combat the virus, they must not replace the work that contact tracers do or stop mass testing

BY ANTONY MUTUNGA

Technology has come in handy amid the coronavirus pandemic more so in contact tracing. 

Despite its sudden rise, the idea behind the contact-tracing tech has been used for years as a standard disease control measure.

Basically, contact tracing entails gathering information from those who tested positive to determine the number of people they have been in contact with as well as the areas they have visited so as to provide guidance and control to keep citizens safe. This is done with the aim of reducing the spread of the particular virus. In charge of gathering information and contacting those potentially infected are trained personnel known as contact tracers.

Though effective when dealing with low levels of those infected in a society, major challenges arise when dealing with a fast spreading virus like COVID-19. As a result, innovation tried to restructure this with the integration of technology in the measure, to come up with digital contact tracing apps. In order to deal with the laborious task of acquiring information and contacting a number of potentially infected persons, mobile applications have come up. 

Whenever one downloads the application on their phone, it tracks one’s movements and those whom one has crossed paths, as long as they have the app as well. Other applications, rather than relying on location tracking, they have focused on using Bluetooth instead to identify those whom one has had contact with whether in a bus or in the kiosks. Once this information is collected and someone tests positive for COVID-19, they are contacted for quarantine while those who came into contact with the person are advised to isolate.

The main aim was to isolate those affected while allowing others to continue with their life as usual. Several countries around the world have invested and employed different versions of the application. China, for instance, has developed apps that collect personal health data, travel and other information useful for disease control, identifying individuals at risk. Others like Australia have launched an app that uses Bluetooth where when a person tests positive for COVID-19, authorities can identify the person’s Bluetooth history and call all the people on that list and order them to quarantine.

Investing in such applications are Google and Apple who have special softwares that improve Bluetooth allowing users to log contacts without having to download another application. In some countries where the apps are active, they have been a success. The method in South Korea seems to have controlled the number of infections without major lockdowns. It included a strategy involving national surveillance, mobile technology and a large number of contact tracers. Despite helping contract tracing apps gain attraction, Bluetooth and location tracking technology had little to no part to play. The reality remains that South Korea’s method would not be welcomed in many countries due to its level of surveillance which undermines privacy. 

In fact, a growing number of the populations where the common contact tracing apps have been employed have been skeptical about the privacy concerns that come with them. Apps that rely on location tracking have especially been affected as many fear that governments and companies that collect this data may store it for other purposes.

With information being the new oil, a majority now identify with the risks of companies selling their information to the highest bidders and governments storing their information in one region making them susceptible to hackers. Further than that, those that rely on Bluetooth were thought to be the solution. However, they also came with a flaw due to their history of breaches from hacking.

Now there is need for people to keep their Bluetooth on despite the fact they have always been advised to keep them off especially in public places. Another of the challenges that many using the apps have identified is accuracy. To properly work, in the case Bluetooth technology, there is a need for the devices to be close enough to each other. Relying on radio signals, which are affected by a lot of factors, the accuracy of the apps can be faulty leading to a number of mistakes with huge consequences.

Additionally, despite the recent increase in mobile penetration the developing world more so in Africa, many in rural and remote areas do not own a smartphone and so are not likely to have the app. Without the digital application, contact tracing will be a nightmare. Infections will spread unabated. 

As much as governments and companies are excited about the use of contact tracing apps in helping combat the virus, they must not replace the work that contact tracers do or stop mass testing. If the case of South Korea has made anything clear, it is that contact tracers are important. 

They also need to be well trained in order to do their work well. There is also the need to come up with a way to handle the raised privacy concerns such as strengthening the security of the Bluetooth technology. Technology continues to be immensely useful, although caution is advised to not only ensure the spread of the pandemic is halted, but the population’s data is safe.  

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