Even the best contact tracing app needs a national Covid plan to work

Unless we develop a comprehensive Covid-19 plan, even the best contact tracing apps are limited in their potential to track and contain the virus.
Image: A phone with coronavirus spores inside a red circle on a blue background.
A contact tracing app is only as useful as the quality of the government's Covid-19 plan.Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC

A 62-person wedding in Maine. An off-campus college party in New Jersey. A White House Rose Garden press event. Superspreader events like these catch national and global attention, and it is easy to criticize people who irresponsibly flout Covid-19 safety protocols. But irresponsible mass gatherings are not the biggest problem with America’s abominable coronavirus response.

We do not have the government leadership necessary for the mass testing and contact tracing needed to slow the virus and save lives.

The reason why we are performing so much worse than most of the rest of the world in our national coronavirus response right now is simple: We do not have the government leadership necessary for the mass testing and contact tracing needed to slow the virus and save lives. This is also why digital contact tracing apps, a relatively new public health development, won’t do as much as we need to vanquish the virus, no matter how sophisticated the applications are. But if the government devises an effective national plan for digital contact tracing apps, they could be a key part of getting Covid-19 under control in the country.

Digital contact tracing apps face a two-fold challenge in the U.S.: First, not enough people are using contract tracing apps, likely due to privacy concerns (even though we now have applications that use tracing methods that don’t infringe as much on personal privacy). An Oxford study estimated that 60 percent of a country’s population needs to download and use the apps for them to really be effective. But in other surveys, only 29 percent of Americans said they’d be willing to do so. And only 14 percent said they trusted the government with their data.

Second, unless we develop a comprehensive national system, contact tracing apps are incredibly limited in their potential to track and contain the virus.

Since the U.S. does not even have a national testing program or a manual contact tracing program (unlike many of the nations that have successfully held the virus at bay, or that have recovered from early devastation), it falls on states, municipalities and independent organizations to run their own contact tracing operations. Even for states that have launched contact tracing app programs, effectiveness is stunted as long as one state’s app isn’t compatible with apps in another state. Currently, 14 states have launched their own contact tracing apps, mostly based on the leading digital contact tracing protocol developed by Google and Apple.

Although the U.S. has not demonstrated the political will to create a national contact tracing app, early initiatives by Apple and Google have resulted in some wins for digital contact tracing. To start, instead of cornering the market and launching full contact tracing apps on their own, the two big tech companies released their exposure notification tool openly, allowing other app developers to use the code to create their own contact tracing applications. Additionally, these open design protocols allowed for and encouraged the creation of what experts call “privacy-preserving” apps.

This means that instead of collecting large quantities of easily identifiable location data tagged to a person’s phone — as, say Google Maps, Uber and many other location-tracking services do —a privacy-preserving protocol instead tracks and shares encrypted proximity data based on Bluetooth signals.

Of course, even contact tracing apps developed with privacy-preserving protocols are not perfect; for example, Bluetooth signals can be faulty and incomplete, too. These flaws can be problematic for apps that use Bluetooth signals to track proximity (meaning tracking whether a person’s phone is close to another person’s phone).

An Oxford study estimated that 60 percent of a country’s population needs to download and use the apps for them to really be effective. Only 29 percent of Americans said they’d be willing to do so. And only 14 percent said they trusted the government with their data.

However, overall, proximity tracking poses far fewer risks for privacy than collecting location data does. A location-tracking app can, for example, track where you work, where you worship, and where you spend time with your friends and family. A location-tracking app can also track when you attend a political protest or a campaign event. A centralized database with the location history of all Americans would be vulnerable to cyberattack and create potential privacy risks for all, especially BIPOC people, LGBTQ people, and other people from marginalized populations. The beauty of the Bluetooth proximity tracking system is that we avoid collecting location data and also avoid storing sensitive data on one central server.

Especially without a national contact tracing program, it is important that state contact tracing apps are interoperable — that is, that they can exchange information as if each state’s app was part of the same network. Some states have designed their contact tracing apps to interface with a national key server developed by the Association of Public Health Libraries, which allows apps from different states to exchange information with other another. This would allow people using apps from different states to still get notifications about coronavirus exposure, even when in another state or when exposed to a person from another state, regardless of which app they were using. This matters because people often travel across state lines, so digital contact tracing is only truly useful nationwide if different state apps are able to work together.

States should design apps to be as privacy-preserving as possible, not only to protect individual privacy but to encourage more people to download and use the apps. Because there is no federal guidance on how to develop and deploy contact tracing apps, some states will create apps that are both ineffective and harmful for privacy. For example, Utah has based its contact tracing app on the more privacy-invasive location tracking method.

Unfortunately, of course, even if all 50 states successfully deploy interoperable and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing apps, we are far past the point where a mass testing and tracing regime can save America from the worst of the pandemic’s effects on our society and our economy. More than 200,000 Americans have died from coronavirus. Countless more have suffered and are still suffering from long-term health effects (and, for many, the financial effects of staggeringly high hospital bills). Even the best contact tracing app cannot undo the damage this pandemic has caused to all of us. But if we don’t develop a national plan to use them, who knows what the future will look like.

Even the best contact tracing app can’t undo the damage of Covid-19. But if we don’t develop a national plan to use them, who knows what the future will look like.

That’s all to say that we cannot stop trying. We can’t afford to leave any stone unturned in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. We must do everything in our power to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. So, if you live in a state that has rolled out a privacy-preserving contact tracing app, you should download it, particularly if the app uses Bluetooth proximity data. Similarly, if you live in an area with convenient and affordable testing, you should take advantage of it. Wherever we live, all of us should continue to wear masks, social distance and support one another in following healthy Covid-19 safety protocols.

We know by now that we cannot trust our current federal government to stop the spread of this virus. State and local governments must lead the way. Businesses and community organizations must contribute where they can. We must all do our parts — but, even while fighting this pandemic, we must take care to not lose sight of fundamental rights like privacy. Public health and privacy are both critical for our society, and we must protect both values, especially now.