Contact Tracing and Contact Tracing Apps

Contact Tracing has been a buzzword in the news lately due to COVID-19 and will likely continue to be a big topic in the months to come. So, what is contact tracing? According to Merriam Webster the following:

“the practice of identifying and monitoring individuals who may have had contact with an infectious person as a means of controlling the spread of a communicable disease”

COVID-19 is highly contagious, and this method could help slow the spread as the country starts to open again. However, many people seem apprehensive about it, and unsure of what to do if a contact tracer contacts them.

Contact tracing is usually carried out by a human. This human will speak to the infected individual to find out everyone they have been in contact within the duration of infection (based on the virus). They will then reach out to those people to find out if they have any symptoms. If they do, they repeat the process. They also usually recommend everyone who has been in contact to self-quarantine (no symptoms, but still avoid people) or self-isolate (has symptoms and avoid people). Contact tracers are NOT allowed to divulge names. They can only tell you that you have been in contact with someone sick. This is part of patient confidentiality.

The CDC currently defines this as “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated.”

Contact tracing apps automate this process of tracing people who may have encountered an infected person using Bluetooth and GPS. While this seems like a faster way than regular contact tracing it presents several problems.

  • Security: Along with any digital format is data. Where there is data there is the possibility of a data breach. This specific set of data however deals directly with health information, a sensitive subject.

  • Devices: Most of these apps will only run on up to date smart phones, something which plenty of Americans do not have access to. 

  • Usage: For something of this nature to work, people would have to use it. For it to be accurate a large percentage of the population would have to use it regularly and honestly. 

  • Accuracy: App usage would certainly be faster than humans doing the contact tracing, but with any digital format come bugs and other software issues. This is especially so when the app development was rushed and is an invitation to hackers and cyber attackers to use the data against people as a weapon.

The idea of contact tracing is not new, and it is not bad if handled properly. It has been used throughout history to combat the spread of infectious disease. With the majority of people being involved in the digital world, it makes sense that a contact tracing app would be the next step. But as with all things, precaution and constant development will be needed.

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