Too many people think their tool is a solution to every problem, and too many politicians merely want to be seen as doing something – anything – to combat the current crisis. This risks Manx taxpayer resources being wasted on Coronavirus apps. Such apps might be attractive at first sight, but they are not likely to help combat the virus. I have extensive experience working in app security systems and I’ve put together some points on why I think a track and tracing app may not be the ideal solution to monitoring Covid in the community.
Contact tracing works by knowing who has the virus to identify others at risk of having the virus. After identification, isolation can reduce the virus spreading. Governing is about prioritising the best options given limited resources and information. The government initially announced that they would consider a contact tracing app, but it disappeared with little public attention. This is good! We are better off prioritising resources to more fruitful areas.
“When you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” When you are a tech-geek, it is tempting to think that every problem can be solved by an app. Need transport? Should be an app for that! Need food? Should be an app for that! Need contact tracing? Should be – wait.
In 2021, many weaknesses limit the ability of apps to perform effective contact tracing. Apps trying to do contact tracing will hit against fundamental problems of many false positives (alarms wrongly triggered) and false negatives (alarms wrongly not triggered). These errors will cause the public to quickly distrust the app, precisely when we need trust in efforts to combat the virus. Destroying public trust is worse than having no app at all.
The app needs precise definition of a contact, such being within two metres of an infected person. We will get false positives because GPS and Bluetooth aren’t accurate enough. Bluetooth can’t be used to determine exact distances, and GPS is useless indoors. We will also get false positives because the app won’t consider physical barriers, and because some close contacts cause no transmission. If a person triggers a contact alarm on the 1st, 15th and 30th of January, are they seriously expected to isolate for 14 days each time? That’s absurd. Consequently, anyone who triggers a contact alarm will need to be tested. This is the same as the current situation, but with more false positives and more distrust.
We will also get false negatives by not recording all new infections. Your phone might not correctly identify that you were in proximity to another phone. Phones often give us wrong locations (especially indoors) and it is not unusual for Bluetooth devices to fail to communicate properly.
Sometimes Coronavirus will be transmitted by people who do not have the app running. Not everyone has a smartphone (not just children, but many adults too) and not everyone with a smartphone will install the app. Even Whatsapp is installed on under 80% of phones. Further, some people do not carry their phone literally 100% of the time, such as to meetings, bathrooms, or gym classes. Finally, false negatives will arise when the disease is transmitted outside of app-programmed contacts. This might be through a brief sneeze or fomites.
The End Game
In the end, despite having the app, you cannot be confident of whether you have been infected or not. Instead, there are better options: professional contact tracing staff. While much of the IOM Government’s response can be characterised as downplaying the risks for too long, the contact tracing team appear to do an effective job. They use their judgment and skills to obtain actionable information and identify high risk contacts. The contact tracing team should keep doing their job in a professional manner.