Chas Kissick, Elliot Setzer, and Jacob Schulz at 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.”
Johnson’s rebuttal is perhaps a bit reductive, but he’s not that far off.
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. But as Jonathan Zittrain puts it, the “bigger picture momentum appears to have waned.”
What’s behind contact-tracing apps’ departure from the spotlight? For one, there’s the onset of a larger pandemic apathy in the U.S; many politicians and Americans seem to have thrown up their hands or put all their hopes in the speedy development of a vaccine. Yet, the apps haven’t even made much of a splash in countries that havetaken the pandemic more seriously. 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.
Maybe it’s still possible that contact-tracing apps will make a miraculous comeback and approach the level of efficacy observers once anticipated.
But even if technical issues implausibly subside, the apps are operating in a world of unknowns.
Most centrally, researchers still have no real idea what level of adoption is required for the apps to actually serve their function. Some estimates suggest that 80 percent of current smartphone owners in a given area would need to use an app and follow its recommendations for digital contact tracing to be effective. But other researchers have noted that the apps could slow the rate of infections even if little more than 10 percent of a population used a tracing app. It will be an uphill battle even to hit the 10 percent mark in America, though. Survey data show that fewer than three in 10 Americans intend to use contact-tracing apps if they become available…(More).