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Could Digital Contact Tracing Help In The Fight Against Coronavirus?

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Contact tracing has been used by medical professionals as a way to track the spread of contagious diseases for years.

Here's how it normally works: When someone tests positive, tracers work backwards to determine who that person has been in contact with to figure out who else may have been exposed and infected. But human memory is limited. Most people can't recall every single person they've interacted with in the days or weeks since becoming ill.

To help fill that gap, Google and Apple recently announced they are working on updates to their smartphone operating systems -- Android and iOS -- that would allow approved apps from government health agencies to use Bluetooth to track proximity between different users and their devices. The program would be opt-in, but that doesn't satisfy everyone who's concerned with privacy, as Andy Greenberg reports for Wired. And the Google-Apple approach is one of the more privacy-friendly approaches.

Greenberg joined a panel of experts on our newsroom's public affairs show AirTalk, which airs on 89.3 KPCC, to discuss the viability and tradeoffs of digital contact tracing in the fight against COVID-19.

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Attorney Stewart Baker, who specializes in technology law, said that the pros outweigh the cons.

"Using Bluetooth can tell us who we were close to, and if that person turns out to have been infected, then it gives us an idea that we may also be at risk and that we should take action to minimize the risks to the people we love that we otherwise would be spending time with. So it has real value... I have to say the idea that the health authorities who are trying to stamp out this infection might know something about who's been infected and when strikes me as the least of our privacy worries."

Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher and technologist specializing in privacy, security, and behavioral economics, said he was concerned about these apps using untested technology.
"They can, for example, generate false positives, such as you and I being in contact even though we might be separated by personal protective equipment or separated by a wall. But more importantly, they can also yield false negatives, which is essentially not reporting when you and I have been in contact even though perhaps we were close in contact. And so the issue we're talking about here is around using an untested technology, which has privacy concerns, but also efficacy concerns, to make decisions about people's lives."



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