A joint survey conducted by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland has revealed that most Americans cannot or will not participate in app-based contact tracing programs designed to monitor the spread of coronavirus.
The program is currently underway thanks to a partnership between Google and Apple, as well as public health experts and researchers. The apps will allow people who test positive for COVID-19 to notify those they have been in contact with.
According to The Post, Apple and Google announced this week that they had begun delivering the first elements of the software to developers working with public health agencies around the globe. They added that the system is in testing and will be released in the middle of May. The tech giants also said the underlying software would depend on local health agencies developing their own apps and calling on citizens to download and use them.
More than half of those surveyed in the poll, however, said they either didn’t have a smartphone or that they would not use the apps.
The Post reports that approximately 1 in 6 Americans do not have smartphones, which would be necessary to use the apps.
“Rates of smartphone ownership are much lower among seniors, who are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of covid-19, with just over half of those aged 65 or older saying that they have a smartphone (53 percent),” the Post states, adding that “rates are even lower for those 75 and older…”
Among the 82 percent of Americans who do own smartphones, however, willingness to use such apps is split 50-50.
“Willingness runs highest among Democrats and people reporting they are worried about a covid-19 infection making them seriously ill,” the Post reports. “Resistance is higher among Republicans and people reporting a lower level of personal worry about getting the virus.”
Surprisingly, much of the concern from respondents hesitant to use the apps stemmed from distrust of Apple and Google over privacy concerns—as opposed to distrust of the government entities who could get their hands on the data.
Only 43 percent of smartphone users said they had “a great deal” or “a good amount” of trust in Google and Apple and other tech companies, the Post adds.
“I don’t feel like they have a good track record of taking care of people’s privacy and data. And I don’t want to give them more if I don’t trust them,” said Brent Weight, 43, a Republican-leaning independent voter in Idaho. “Seems like every other day you’re hearing of a data breach in a big company, and they’re losing credit card information and everything else. For them to just tell us it’s going to be safe and anonymized, I’m not going to take them at face value.”
“A few people might do it, but a lot of people [won’t], so the data coming back might not be as accurate because not a lot of people are going to tell the truth,” said Alvonica Jackson, 32, a stay-at-home mom in Washington, D.C. who described herself as a registered Democrat who leans independent. “When someone is diagnosed, “they’re going to be too sick to worry about an app.”
While many are clamoring for the apps to have widespread use in order to be effective at slowing the spread of coronavirus, cryptographer Bruce Schneier argues that such apps will be “worse than useless.”
The Daily Swig reports:
“Contact tracing uses Bluetooth or GPS and then Bluetooth to try to get within six feet. We know that the error rates of that are surprisingly high,” Schneier said during a BlackHat webcast on Thursday (April 16).
“And there’ll be a lot of instances where the system will register a contact when there actually isn’t one.”
False positives could arise, for example, when someone was “within two feet of someone who has Covid-19 for eight hours”, but there was a wall between them because they were in adjacent hotel rooms.
False negatives can arise when a contact isn’t registered because people happen not to be carrying their smartphones.
That’s aside from the problem of getting people to install contact-tracing apps on a voluntary basis. Schneier suggested uptake might be only around 20%.
“We don’t know the percentage of contacts that result in infections, but that rate actually isn’t that high,” Schneier added. “So basically, I built a system that will do nothing but false alarm.”
“And when I have a system and it alarms, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t go get a test. So, we put the system in place. It’s going to false alarm. Everyone will say, ‘Don’t use it. It doesn’t tell you anything useful,’” he said.
“You know, it’s stupid and we’ll ignore it,” Schneier declared. “But building a system with that kind of error rate is even worse than having no system at all.”
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