A vaccine could be the knock-out punch in our war with COVID-19 and let us move beyond the lockdown nightmare that has so suddenly and unexpectedly been visited upon us. But we can neither afford to wait nor even assume that a medical vaccine is on the horizon. We have to keep fighting this disease on a number of fronts in parallel including introducing a digital vaccine through contact tracing.
While a medical vaccine is a panacea, the nuclear weapon of this war, we are more likely to win battle by battle through a combination of medical treatment options and social changes. It is on the latter that electronic contact tracing is as close to a digital vaccine as we are going to get with the contact data being akin to our virtual antibodies. When someone is infected, our contact tracing antibodies enable health officials to quickly isolate the threat.
The ride sharing companies such as Uber have shown the power of clean contact data in recent weeks when passengers or drivers have tested positive. They have been able to connect drivers and other passengers who might have been exposed with health authorities. They can do this because all activity is in one place with clear identity matching. When the data is consistently managed, matching people is easy.
When piecing together the contacts from many different sources, rather than a single app like the ride sharing service, the data is complex. Countries around the world are allocating many thousands of people to working through the contacts of people who have been infected. Often there are digital breadcrumbs through social media and other tools, but the fragmentation makes the assembly of each individual picture incredibly manual. The absence of an accurate source of contact information makes the task inaccurate and time consuming.
Singapore was the first to propose a simple smartphone app emulating ride sharing transactions for their entire country, called TraceTogether. Residents simply download the app and enable Bluetooth identification of others who also have the service who they come into contact with. However, take-up has been less than desired.
Countries like Australia are following Singapore’s lead. Unfortunately, like regular vaccines, there is suspicion where trust is needed. This is one occasion when we need to accept some level of intrusion into our privacy. We can’t play politics with this and we need to trust the guarantees of our politicians.
The purpose of the contact tracing app is only to fight COVID-19. The debate on privacy is simply about the app being used for other purposes or our data being leaked. Our government has promised neither of these things will happen. It won’t be used for policing, tax, social security or anything else. They have promised data will be held secure to the Australian health authorities to be used only as authorised. The Australian government is also providing access to their teams for experts such as me to satisfy ourselves that they are keeping to the purpose.
There are more of us watching this app than just about any other technology. Australians should sign-up knowing that any breach of purpose or security will have the attention of the entire technology industry.
Count me in.