The digital contact tracing charade

Digital contact tracing is turning out to be nothing more than a charade, as we, of course, quite clearly predicted several months ago. 🙂

Apple-Google COVID-19 contact-tracing scheme

Chas Kissick, Elliot Setzer, and Jacob Schulz for Lawfare:

In May of this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged the United Kingdom would develop a “world beating” track and trace system by June 1 to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But on June 18, the government quietly abandoned its coronavirus contact-tracing app, a key piece of the “world beating” strategy, and instead promised to switch to a model designed by Apple and Google. The delayed app will not be ready until winter, and the U.K.’s Junior Health Minister told reporters that “it isn’t a priority for us at the moment.” When Johnson came under fire in Parliament for the abrupt U-turn, he replied: “I wonder whether the right honorable and learned Gentleman can name a single country in the world that has a functional contact tracing app—there isn’t one.”

You probably remember the idea of contact-tracing apps: the technological intervention that seemed to have the potential to save lives while enabling a hamstrung economy to safely inch back open; it was a fixation of many public health and privacy advocates; it was the thing that was going to help us get out of this mess if we could manage the risks.

Yet nearly three months after Google and Apple announced with great fanfare their partnership to build a contact-tracing API, contact-tracing apps have made an unceremonious exit from the front pages of American newspapers. Countries, states and localities continue to try to develop effective digital tracing strategies.

Anxieties about privacy persist. But technical shortcomings in the apps deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Countries have struggled to get bespoke apps developed by government technicians to work on Apple phones. The functionality of some Bluetooth-enabled models vary widely depending on small changes in phone positioning. And most countries have only convinced a small fraction of their populace to use national tracing apps…

North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Rhode Island and Utah have all launched apps relying on GPS, rather than the Apple-Google API, but none of the apps has been widely adopted… Despite early hype about the Apple-Google API, only Oklahoma, Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia currently plan to use the Silicon Valley companies’ protocols.

MacDailyNews Take: It was never going to work.

As we’ve written ad infinitum, no matter how convoluted well-designed the Apple-Google contact tracing system is on paper, in practice too few people will install and use it. These apps are designed to provide a digital security blanket to help increase confidence for going back to work more than anything else.

Centralized or decentralized, the whole thing is pie-in-the-sky piffle. Coronavirus contact tracing / exposure notification apps are nothing more than pablum for the masses. It’s simply a case of governments wanting to be able to tell citizens, “Want to feel safe while getting back to work, shopping, going out to eat, vacationing, etc.? There’s an app for that. Don’t worry. Be happy. Download this app and go about your business.”

Might these apps help in some cases to get the relatively few people who will use them to seek testing or self-quarantine if/when the alarm goes off? Of course. But, overall, these apps are little more than security blankets for the citizenry to clutch on their way to herd immunity and, for governments that use a centralized system, to track the spread of infections on the way to herd immunity.

The more we hear about this “system,” the more we are convinced that Apple undertook this obviously quixotic quest in order to get out ahead on digital COVID-19 contact tracing, and drag along perpetual-follower Google, before governments were able to go full throttle on their own Orwellian schemes.MacDailyNews, May 4, 2020

These apps aren’t going to work for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 very well or at all (see why here, here and here), but they are going to provide excellent legal cover, which is necessary, especially in more litigious countries, for all of us to get back to life.MacDailyNews, May 22, 2020

At the very least, and perhaps the primary impetus for the creation of these apps at universities and everywhere else, is that the existence of such apps relieve universities and everyone else from LIABILITY under the law. Look at digital contact tracing apps as a buffer for getting back to school, work, leisure activities, sports, travel, etc. without the fear of being sued.

Schools, restaurants, airlines, retailers, everyone will be able to say: “The apps exist. Not our fault if too few people use them. Get well soon, as do 99.72% (99.91% under age 65) of people who contract COVID-19!”

This is the real reason why digital contact tracing apps exist: Absolvement of legal liability.MacDailyNews, May 22, 2020

More about the myriad issues of Bluetooth COVID-19 contact tracing apps can be found in our Takes here, here, here, and here for just four of many examples.


  1. ” Coronavirus contact tracing / exposure notification apps are nothing more than pablum for the masses. It’s simply a case of governments wanting to be able to tell citizens, “Want to feel safe while getting back to work, shopping, going out to eat, vacationing, etc.? There’s an app for that. Don’t worry. Be happy. Download this app and go about your business.”

    Just like masks… :-\

    1. Except masks protect everyone else from catching your COVID germs. They should not make you feel safe. You should only feel safe if other people in the room are wearing a mask.

      1. You can go one believing that… coronavirus is so small that masks are like trying to protect oneself from mosquitoes using a chain-linked fence…let alone the fact that few people actually know how to use one without causing any spread… all a false sense of security.

        1. Your lack of understanding of how this all works is pretty lacking. First, while the virus is very small, it doesn’t travel through a barrier like a mask on it’s own. It is contained in magnitudes larger droplets. Secondly, there is a reason physicians have worn masks in ORs for decades… This is simple stuff. Don’t make it complicated.

          1. In fact it is NOT complicated. You are showing your lack of understanding about masks, how they work, and how to properly used them, which again, MOST people do not know how to use them. Just on that last point alone it significantly reduces their effectiveness.

            Like you said, don’t make it complicated. But do know the facts.

      2. It’s iike the time I went scuba diving with an old timer scuba welder…. I was doing a buddy check, looking over his equipment and I asked “Where is your octo?” (the backup regulator attached to the tank) He replied: “I’ve never needed one.” I said exasperated: “An octo is for me you jackass, not you!” (and of course I had one on my tank in case HE ran out of air…

  2. They tried this in Australian and went about it off their own bat despite Apple and Google both stating that they would work with the government to develop the apps. The government went off on their own and the app didn’t work. Only 25 percent of the cell phone owning public downloaded it. They needed 40 percent market penetration

    Now I’ve been a big supporter of taking robust approach to getting on top of the virus but this was a cluster…k from go to woe. If there’s one thing that gets my hackles up are government controlled centralised databases that have the potential to be used by overseas government agencies (US Homeland Security). Absolutely no way would I download this app as there are too many unanswered security issues.

  3. The German app is life, has 16M downloads and uses the Apple API. I think it’s a great addition to masks and distancing: Distance/masks reduce the likelihood of an infection. Apps reduce the impact of an infection, as the infected can be identified and isolated more quickly. Off course it does not solve it all alone, but no one said that. The app is easy to install and it works as a „set and forget“ solution. I will simply get a push notification if it detects a possible contact. If not, all the other systems are in place to protect us as well.
    Look at the German numbers vs the US numbers and start following best practices!

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