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The Issues with Contact Tracing Phone Apps

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02/11/21—From The World Health Organization to the American Medical Association, there is agreement on the elements needed to stop the spread of COVID-19. “Contact tracing is crucial in order to rapidly identify case s and their contacts and prevent resurgence,” said Dr. Stéphane Hugonnet with the WHO Health Emergency Program. For COVID-19 in particular, quickly tracking infection is especially dire considering the amount of asymptomatic spread and has inspired development of various digital solutions to augment manual tracing. Even the CDC has noted that digital contract tracing tools add efficiency and speed to the process, so why has the concept of a cellphone-based app for contact tracing seen such little success?

Low Adoption Rates for Phone Apps

The adoption rates for phone apps are not encouraging. Reports on individual states’ efforts show numbers that are nowhere near a satisfactory adoption rate. For example, phone apps only have a 1%  installation rate in Wyoming and 4% in New Jersey and New York. Virginia is a bright spot with almost 20% of its population having installed the app. Despite the state reporting over 10,000 new cases that month, Nevada had zero exposures registered in the app in September, to the frustration of those spearheading the effort. As it turns out, the AMA says almost 60% of Americans are unwilling or unable to use app-based contact tracing, and the majority noted privacy concerns.

Privacy With GPS and Bluetooth

Where many concerns lie is in the use of GPS tracking with an app, which provides more location data at the cost of user privacy.  The app put out by the state of North Dakota was found to be in violation of its own privacy policy, sharing user’s location data with the company Foursquare.  “Location tracking is highly invasive because it tracks all your movements such as going to a church, or a birth control clinic and who you associate with,” says Jennifer D. Oliva, JD, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law. Oliva also notes that GPS can’t reliably identify when contacts are within 6 feet of each other. This makes Bluetooth a much preferred method for tracing, as it can capture duration and range of the contact made in an encrypted manner. But even when utilizing Bluetooth technology, app-based contact tracing falls short. What’s the issue?

Cell Phones

An app-based system relies on personal cell phone use from the members of the organization or workforce, which presents issues beyond privacy concerns. While using Bluetooth is great, it is also battery intensive on a cell phone due to the use of the main phone processors to listen for the Bluetooth-signal “chirps” of another device. In this case, dead batteries can mean the contact tracing link has been broken.  Android phones have variable antenna configurations among its thousands of models, causing variable losses of signal strength—not to mention the 1.5 billion people globally who use basic phones that don’t have a Bluetooth chip. But really all of this is moot when we look back at those adoption rates, and the fact that 60% say they won’t use an app for contact tracing. An un-intrusive and privacy-centric option must be implemented in order to see the results needed to stop COVID-19 spread.

Standalone System from AlertTrace

The simple solution from AlertTrace has been thoughtfully designed to mitigate these issues and make digital contact tracing work for organizations of all sizes.  AlertTrace knocks out all the variables that personal cell phones throw into the mix, providing users with hardware and software manufactured and developed in the United States. Charging issues are no more with our system. If you’ve been charging a fleet of smartwatches every evening or having employees dropping off tracing efforts due to drained cell batteries, AlertTrace has you covered with batteries that last for up to 6 months. Our system is designed with tracing in mind, with customizable ranges and a social distancing reminder. Team members can be assured their privacy has been taken into account, with encrypted, anonymized data, and optimized Bluetooth technology instead of GPS. With no location information collected and no one having to download an app, it’s easy to get everyone on board.  Not only has our system resulted in a 99% decrease in contact tracing time, but adherence to social distancing guidelines is also optimized, bumping it up 80%. Increase the health and safety of your community and keep your businesses open responsibly with AlertTrace. We can show you how today when you schedule a demo.