In this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast, I’m joined by my colleague Olivier Blanchard and our focus today is on a discussion around contact tracing apps — and what these apps mean for privacy in the era of COVID-19. With the development and deployment of contract tracing apps, are privacy and security concerns taking a back seat when it comes to combating the COVID-19 pandemic?
Olivier has written a lot on the topic of privacy and security concerns the world over in recent months. He has also covered the Google Apple partnership in a recent analyst insight article: Google, Apple COVID-19 Contact-Tracing Partnership: The Good and the Bad, in case you’d like the latest on what Google and Apple are partnering to do in terms of a contract tracing offering, which is due to launch mid-May
Our conversation touched on what’s going on elsewhere in the world as it relates to the use of contact-tracing apps to combat the spread of COVID-19, including updates in global markets ranging from South Korea, Singapore, China, and Taiwan, to Australian and Germany, and even what’s happening in some individual states in the United States as it relates to contract tracing apps.
We also talked about what’s happening in the private sector with the development and deployment of apps designed to provide contract tracing capabilities to enterprises and what’s likely ahead there. This might present an interesting challenge for employees who aren’t comfortable opting in to contact tracing apps, but whose options might well be to either have a job and participate in contact tracing apps, or, well, to not have that job.
This was an interesting discussion about contract tracing apps, who are sure to be in our not-too-distant future in some way or another, and what they mean for privacy in the era of COVID-19.
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Shelly Kramer: Hello. Welcome to this week’s episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast. Today, we’re going to talk about contact tracing apps and what those apps mean for privacy in the era of COVID-19. Before we get started, this is a reminder that in this webcast, we might talk about publicly traded companies. We might express opinions because we have many of them. Note that this show is intended for informational purposes only.
Please do not use anything we say is investment advice or guidance. That is not what we intend here. With that aside, I’m joined today by my colleague Olivia Blanchard. Today, we’re going to talk about, as I said, contact tracing apps and what that means for privacy. Are privacy and security concerns taking a back seat when it comes to combating the COVID-19 pandemic? Oliver, you’ve written a ton about this in recent weeks. Tell us what’s going on out there.
Olivier Blanchard: Yeah. It looks like I’m going to be writing a ton more about it, too. The tech world, which has been criticized for not having jumped fast enough on a COVID-19 Coronavirus response actually has at least one domain. That is contact tracing. There’s one thing that technology companies, especially in this era of ubiquitous connectivity and apps and everybody carrying a smartphone. Tech companies have an ability to reinvent contact tracing.
Make it much more democratized much faster and allow us to map out areas where the virus might be spreading, who might be touched by it, et cetera. Especially when we know that this virus mostly affects people, but they remain asymptomatic, which means they present no symptoms for a very long time if ever.
Sometimes, being in contact with someone who’s positive for the virus but shows no symptoms can lure people into thinking that they haven’t been in contact with the virus when in fact, they have. A lot of companies are trying to build apps and systems that will allow individuals to be notified if they’ve come in contact with someone who’s tested positive recently and will also help public health systems track the spread of the virus one way or another.
One of the main efforts that I’ve been tracking that seems very promising is a collaboration between Apple and Google. One of the reasons for that is Apple is behind iOS, which is the operating systems for iPhones. Google of course is behind Android, which is the operating system for most of the other phones.
By combining their resources and their research on this one platform, what they’re able to do is create a contact tracing platform that will be compatible for iPhones and all Android phones as well, which is really important. They put together this plan to put together an app that’s going to be released in phases. Essentially, what the app does is it uses Bluetooth on your phone.
Essentially, when you come within say five or six feet of somebody else’s phone or your phone rather comes within five or six feet of somebody else’s phone, a Bluetooth ping or handshake happens that’s encrypted. The phones basically make a note of that proximity.
Later on, if one of you or people with phones test positive for the Coronavirus, what they can do is have the app downloaded and enter their new status of COVID positive or Coronavirus positive in the app, which is completely anonymized. It’s all encrypted.
What will then happen is a third party will send a notification to all of the phones that your phone as an infected person has been near to let them know that they have come in contact recently with somebody who has recently tested positive. The cool thing about this is that it’s completely anonymous. The data is anonymized.
As the person being notified, you don’t get a notification that you were near somebody who was infected on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street on Tuesday at 3 PM. It also doesn’t tell you, “Hey, Joe Smith just tested positive.” It just tells you that you’ve come near somebody who has tested positive. Therefore, it implies that you should probably be tested just to be sure because you were close to them. That’s it.
If you’re the person who has tested positive, your data is also anonymized and encrypted, which means that when you enter that information into the app before it goes anywhere else, it basically hides who you are. It hides your identity.
It does everything that it can to protect people’s privacy and still provide individuals with the information that they need in order to stay safe and to prevent the spread of the virus without necessarily giving away any private information and private medical information about anyone to anyone else.
Shelly Kramer: I think I read something and I can’t pull the data point completely out of my head. I read something that criticized this initiative because it assumes that … I don’t know if it was requiring phones that were a certain generation. Newer generation phones, if this is capability. That it won’t be democratized in terms of people’s efforts to be able to download and use that app. Just a tiny, tiny snippet of information in my brain.
Am I remembering correctly that there are some concerns about that?
Olivier Blanchard: It’s possible. It’s not a perfect system, right? It’s entirely possible that yes, if you use a clamshell phone from 2005, which you shouldn’t be using anymore.
Shelly Kramer: Right. That’s a given.
Olivier Blanchard: Yeah.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah. No. That’s a given. I’ll have to do some research.
Olivier Blanchard: It’s not perfect. On the one hand, people have to opt in, which in my opinion, most social media, most data tracking, most of anything that collects data on individuals should be opt in. I’ve been a big proponent of opt in as a default since the beginning of apps.
In this particular case, I think that if it’s opt in and there’s no sense of obligation, if there’s no discipline among the general public or some incentive that’s not just doing your civic duty and protecting yourself and your neighbors, but also an incentive. You can’t go on Netflix and watch Tiger King unless-
Shelly Kramer: Anything ever.
Olivier Blanchard: … Never, unless you do this. Create a gateway around it or penalize people by finding them or whatever. Charging them with a misdemeanor if they refuse to comply, which would be very extreme. Unless you find some way of getting mass adoption en masse use of this type of app, I’m afraid that its effectiveness will be minimized. Because if only 20% of the population uses it, that’s not going to be an effective way of scaling contact tracing unfortunately.
That’s one of the conundrums here.
Shelly Kramer: Here in the US, we’re not the only country who’s struggling with trying to figure this out. I wanted to take a minute and talk about what’s going on in some other countries. There are many more than we’re going to talk about here. In South Korea for instance, they use contact tracing apps. They also pull CCTV cameras. They use credit card data to track movement and to also track people in quarantine.
In Singapore, there was an app called Trace Together that was launched. It’s an opt in model. The amusing thing to me anyway is that they got something like 12% of the population to actually download and run the app. What’s interesting to me about that is Singapore and China where everyone has to at least pretend they like the government. That aside, this wasn’t a mandatory thing. They only got 12% of the population to download it.
That shows you what we might be able to expect. Taiwan, actually I don’t want to talk about Taiwan yet. I want to talk about China. In China, contact tracing apps are a given. I spent some time in China in the last year or so. It was so fascinating to me. Residents are just so used to every single thing they do being recorded. There’s nothing that’s secret. It’s just their lives. They’re also used to using their mobile devices for everything.
In China, contact tracing apps on your cellphone, they are mandatory. They’re not asking for your participation. It’s mandatory. People are assigned a health code that’s generated by your phone. That’s your passport. When you go to the grocery store, show me your code. You want to book a train ticket, you better have a code. You want to go to a coffee shop, you better have a code. Nobody’s trusting anybody. Everybody has their own little thumbs up.
You’re able to go places. Lastly, I wanted to touch on what Taiwan is doing. Taiwan has one of the lowest instances of the Coronavirus COVID-19. They’ve been lauded all over the world about how they’ve handled this and how they’ve managed to keep their cases really low. They engage in what’s called participatory self-surveillance, which sounds like, “Oh sure.” Right? Self-surveillance. They enforce quarantines with cellphone data tracking.
They also use government databases that include travel and health records. I know where you’ve been. The government knows where you’ve been. In addition to that, the whole country just opted in. They voluntarily participated with the government to create what has been called an online town hall or a brainstorming site or even a hacktivist call to action.
What they did is they involve their citizens in helping to create solutions and/or to providing feedback to different solutions that the government proposed. For instance, somebody could be somewhere in the city and report that, “Oh. It looks like chicken supplies are getting really low.” This database that citizens could continually contribute to, part of the success that they had is that they didn’t run into supply chain problems either.
We’ve seen in the United States where people go crazy buying toilet paper or cleaning solutions or whatever. By involving citizens in this process, rather than just dictating policies to them, “Here’s what you’re going to do, like it or not.” They have been able to create this atmosphere of trust and transparency.
Truly, we’ve seen what at this point, I forget the count, it’s 579 million commercial spots that say, “We’re all in this together,” from every brand on the universe. What they did in Taiwan is they really created a situation where people believed that we are all truly in this together. The only way out with a minimum loss of life is for us to pool our resources and our intelligence and our capabilities together and make this happen.
I cannot remember their death count but it’s ridiculous. It’s 400 people or something like that who they’ve lost to COVID-19. That’s a big deal. I know you have a couple other countries that you’ve been looking at. What else do you see out there?
Olivier Blanchard: Europe’s a pretty big factor, right? We tend to be a little bit US or North American-centric just because that’s where we live. They’re closer to threats. The tunnel vision approach we have but Europe’s not that far away. Europe’s a really interesting case because you have essentially sovereign states that all try to work together and adopt regional standards for the European community.
Typically, especially after Brexit, you tend to look to Germany and sometimes, France as the big central main economies in Europe to decide where Europe is going to go or where it’s trending. Eyes are very often on Germany when new standards are being developed.
To circle back to what I was talking about earlier, I’ve done a really good job of convincing Europe that they have a really solid platform and to try to bypass European efforts to create individual solutions for every country. Belgium would have its own solution. France would have its own solution. That’s fine, but they want to try to re-centralize that a little bit. Germany was a stumbling block for them.
Germany, as of pretty much a week ago, backed a very centralized standard that they called a Pan European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Shelly Kramer: Say that five times fast.
Olivier Blanchard: Yeah. Pan European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing, PEPPPT. What it would have done is, I think if I remember correctly, it would have forced, it would have put all of the data in one central database and then Apple, like other applications would pull from that. As opposed to storing some of the information on individual phones like I told you about earlier. Apple would not budge. Apple said, “No. This is the way we’re going to do it.
If you want to do it this other way, you’re not going to do it with us.” As crazy as it sounds, Apple’s refusal to budge on this forced Germany to reverse course and accept a decentralized approach that uses phones to store some of the encrypted data as opposed to putting everything in one central place.
It’s one of the rare cases where a technology company has influenced not foreign policy, but influenced policy in another country, which could affect an entire region in terms of the adoption of this type of app. Now simultaneously, Australia is doing something a little bit different. They’ve launched their own app called COVIDSafe. It’s the same thing. It’s the same principle. You download the app. It picks up some of your data.
It anonymizes your data so that when you do notify the app that you’re positive, if you do, it doesn’t know exactly who you are. Other people don’t know who you are either. In that case, again, there is currently no plan by the Australian government to make the use of the app to mandatory. So far, it’s often as it is for pretty much all Western countries at this point. We’ll see. We’ll see what adoption rates we get.
Shelly Kramer: I’ve seen news about that today that they released the app this weekend. That it’s been downloaded about a million times so far. One of the things I thought that was interesting is that the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison was interviewed about this. Obviously, a lot of PR around this release. He said that of course, downloading the app is voluntary, but he called it a civic duty. I think that it’s a really interesting concept.
We’re going to come back to that later in our discussion here about how people perceive what their duty is as it relates to this right now. It is really interesting to see what else is going on out there. Just to the US in general, what we’re seeing in the United States, one of our problems I think in combating this is that every state is its own entity, doing whatever it wants to do. In some ways, that’s good. In some ways, not so good.
North Dakota has launched an app, for instance. The app was originally developed for NDSU fans who were going to out of town football games to be able to track, “Oh. I’m on the road Olivier. You’re on the road. Where are you?” That sort of thing. The app already existed. It was by the way, developed by an NDSU alum. That’s an opt in app.
I see that Utah just signed a contract, a $2.75 million contract with an app company called Twenty to build a voluntary tracking tool. Hawaii has talked about using GPS trackers to ensure that tourists on the islands are following quarantined instruction.
While I think sometimes, our Wild, Wild West approach to things in the United States can be a good thing depending on what state you live in, it does seem to me that perhaps what we’re looking at is a lot of different states spending millions and millions of dollars to reinvent the wheel. Instead of maybe us figuring out a solution on a nationwide basis that might not be such a bad idea and also might not cost us quite so much.
Have you heard anything about any other states doing things like that?
Olivier Blanchard: It wouldn’t surprise me if every state wanted to do their own thing. I don’t know. Unfortunately, the US politically or culturally rather is a little bit odd to me. Because coming from France, being French originally, I grew up in a country that was just as nationalistic as the US. Not as many flags flying everywhere, but the French are super proud of being French. The French identity is very strong just like the American identity is very strong. USA number one.
French are exactly the same way. Viva la France. However, in the US, there’s also this weird decentralized and nationally decoupling mentality where you’re more part of a region or a cultural subset of the country or even member of a state, then you are really truly an American. You’re an America when it’s time to fly the flag. You’re not necessarily American when it comes time to all rally together coast to coast.
California and Texas and Nevada and New York, that’s when you start getting into turf wars. It’s like Clemson versus Carolina.
Shelly Kramer: They don’t like each other.
Olivier Blanchard: Right. Everyone’s trying to do their own thing. Not everybody, but a lot of people want to do their own thing out of pride, out of just cultural/political pressure.
Shelly Kramer: Distrust.
Olivier Blanchard: Distrust, right. Out of “distrust of the federal government.” Distrust of Google or distrust of Apple or big tech. We have these cultural biases, this soup of cultural biases that inform our decisions and our preferences and our fears. Sometimes, instead of all coming together and saying, “Okay. The pros here are the people who can do this fastest and the best at scale are Google and Apple.” Period.
If we did that and concentrated all the resources that we need on building this and adopting it nationally, we could get there a lot faster. Instead, if everybody starts retreating into their own fiefdoms and saying, “Okay. I’m going to use this app over here because Cousin Billy Bob and Cousin Joe over here is working for that company.
Therefore, what you end up with is this multitude of apps that are going to be marginally effective and consistently effective across the country. That will also take longer to develop, longer to adopt and create more confusion in the market. When it’s dating apps, variety is great. Competition is awesome.
When it’s an app that’s designed to as quickly as possible, scale as big and as fast as possible to help save lives and create a uniform notification platform for the entire country. If you just use a patchwork of apps to try to bridge that gap instead of one central app and it’s going to take longer, it’s not going to be as effective. They cluster. Do you know what?
I’m a little bit concerned that sometimes, our need for individualism gets in the way of being effective.
Shelly Kramer: I think that that personifies everything about the United States, our need for individual. It is. Our need for individualism. You talk about regions. We also have so much cross border. I live in the state of Missouri and the state of Kansas is literally four blocks West of me. You have all kinds of cross border stuff and everything else. It’s just really interesting.
Like I said, the Utah contract, $2.75 million, cities and states everywhere are really struggling right now. Their budgets are taking a huge hit. I cannot imagine going with this solution that requires a multimillion dollar investment at this point in time rather than looking at what can we do. Part of the problem that we have is we have the Midwest. We have the Southerners. We have the Northerners. These people hate these people. Nobody trusts New Yorkers. Yeah.
I’m sure that happens in other parts of Europe. I’m sure there are predisposed hatreds and things like rivalries and stuff like that. It is frustrating. We’re talking about lives here. We’re talking about common sense and pooling our resources. Maybe if we all pay some, we get things happening faster. One of the things being getting things happening faster. I believe that what’s going on in the private sector is actually going to play a very big role here. Here’s why.
Many of the largest companies out there already engage in tracking. Keyboard tracking, sign in tracking, using your … What’s it called? Your ID card. My daughter works for a 7000-person firm insurance company that happens to be headquartered here in Kansas City. One of the things that they’ve done for years is they do health tracking. Totally opt in and give the company all kinds of data about your level of physical fitness and other habits that you have.
My daughter happens to be a single mom. I’ve talked to her about this. “Do you worry about the privacy business?” My daughter’s a single mom and the benefit that is offered to them by way of reduction in insurance costs is so significant that not opting in isn’t an option. That’s just one example of tracing and tracking.
Companies have been tracking forever, but with the advent of work from home that the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred, all of a sudden, companies who aren’t used to having all of their employees working from home are freaking out. We want to be sure people are productive and that they’re working. Again, going back to my daughter, I know that she’s required to log on to her email by such and such a time everyday. She never misses that time.
Other requirements are in place in terms of keeping track of her. What’s happening in the private sector, we’re seeing PWC as a gigantic company that’s actually playing in this space. They have a solution. They have a part of their company that’s called Connected Solutions. In their Connected Solutions practice, they offer technology solutions that focus on productivity. Things like monitoring keyboard use, all different kinds of things.
What they’ve added to this offering is a solution called … Actually, the original solution is called check in. Probably something similar to what my daughter uses. What they have done now, they’ve got a new solution that’s a tracing solution. This solution uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi anonymously to map how employees interact. If a person ends up infected, it’s their responsibility to notify HR.
HR then goes into the app and traces everyone that a person has been in contact with. Today, when everybody’s working from home, probably not a thing. The way that PWC is marketing this and positioning this makes perfect sense. We all want to get back to whatever semblance of normal is. The only way we can get back to normal and have people descending again en masse, in office buildings and working together is to be able to track who’s healthy and who’s not.
I think that this is really tremendously interesting because I think what we’re going to see is a ton of enterprise companies adopting this kind of technology. I think that that will help spur the adoption of this kind of contact tracing in large ways. It’s a no brainer. “Olivier, hey. Would you like a job? Would you like to keep your job? You want to come back to the office? Here’s what we need you to do.” It’s the same thing.
People might not have loved having to scan in or check in or whatever else to measure productivity or may not like having key strokes recorded or any other kind of cameras recording what they’re doing. The reality of it is it becomes normal in everyday. Just like for people in China, it’s normal in everyday. They have everything on CCTV and all other kinds of surveillance things.
I do think in some ways, what happens with the private sector spurring this, certainly at the large corporation level, I think people will become, certain parts of our population will become more accustomed to giving up that privacy, if you will. That doesn’t mean necessarily that if they had the choice, that they would necessarily opt in.
Olivier Blanchard: It’s temporary. Yeah. It could be long term, but it’s still somewhat temporary. I don’t think we’re going to be necessarily dealing with Coronavirus fears three years from now. It could be a year, year and a half. Who knows? At the same time, yeah. It’s something I was thinking about last week. Because up until now, we’ve put so much emphasis on looking to the governments.
Whether it’s the federal government, state government, county government to provide testing. It makes a lot of sense for companies to start taking over with that and using their own resources to provide testing for their employees and essentially, clear employees to come back to work. Little by little, 20% at a time, whatever it takes.
You still need to rethink workspaces so that social distancing can be effective inside the building, requiring wearing masks, things of that nature. There’s other elements to this, but as part of the return to work phase of this journey, I think it behooves companies, especially large ones that have more resources to take over the testing themselves. Yeah. It makes perfect sense to me.
Frankly, it’s a piece of the puzzle that hasn’t gotten enough attention in the media in the last three weeks that should have. I hear very few conversations about companies doing testing as opposed to testing being available for free down the street or on some popular street somewhere.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah. I think that’s largely because in most instances, nobody’s working. You know what I’m saying? Nobody’s going to Apple’s office or to Google’s office or any place else en masse-
Olivier Blanchard: Some the States are reopening, right?
Shelly Kramer: … To be ready to be tested. Yes. Some of the states are reopening.
Olivier Blanchard: Georgia, South Carolina? Yeah.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah. Reopening and it’ll be very interesting to see what happens. It’ll be very interesting. No. I do agree. I believe that just like companies will probably drive the adoption of some of these apps that are being developed by the private sector, I think companies will also say, “We need to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible. Here’s what we’re going to do,” and put some of those solutions in place.
Olivier Blanchard: I like the idea of the health or medical passport where you’re not necessarily wearing a sticker like I voted. It’s like I tested negative.
Shelly Kramer: Likes scarlet letter?
Olivier Blanchard: That’s fine. It’s the opposite, right? You’re not putting a positive sticker on people who tested positive. If you tested negative, you have the sticker. If you haven’t tested anything … It’s like reverse discrimination. It creates an elite of uninfected, but at least temporarily. I do like the passport idea because you choose to flash it when you want to enter a building. You’re not walking around down the street picking up your mail with a mask on hopefully.
Please wear your masks when you go outside, in public places. Yeah. You self-identify as opposed to being identified by something that’s on your person.
Shelly Kramer: I think that’s a great comparison. I think we’ve talked about this offline before. When you go out today and you have to make a grocery store run or whatever, those of us who choose to wear masks are self-identifying. In all of our communities, we are running into people who are very comfortable not wearing a mask. Showing the world that they’re not wearing masks.
It’d be really interesting to think about that opting in and being able to … Because again, a mask is my physical way that I can show that I’m opting in to caring about everyone else’s health. That’s a really interesting concept. We have so much ahead of us on this front. It’ll really be interesting to watch. I think to wrap up, I think that transparency is really key.
I think that when dates and when the government can look at what they did in Taiwan and why it works so well and corporations. When corporations can be trying to figure out solutions to get back to business as normal. It’s really all about trust. It’s all about transparency. I think in many ways, it’s about inviting feedback, inviting ideas.
Sometimes, even if you’re not going to use any of the ideas that people give, sometimes just asking for their input makes all the difference in how people embrace things. I think that being able to show people, what’s in it for me and compared to what’s in it for these technology companies that want my information and being able to assuage their fears. That this is temporary to your point.
I think all those things will go a long way toward getting some forward movement. Bottom line, if we want to get back to normal, we need forward movement. It’ll definitely be something interesting to watch.
Olivier Blanchard: I just want to reiterate also that this contact tracing, which contact tracing is a puzzle we need to solve because it’s such an essential component of being able to function as a society. Because we can’t just shelter in place for the next year and a half. Contact tracing is absolutely primordial.
Anonymized contact tracing also means that it’s not just the people being notified that they’ve been in contact with somebody who tested positive, who don’t see who it is. In theory, if the contact tracing app is designed properly and my understanding of the Google and Apple partnership is that Google and Apple will not see that information either.
They might be collecting some information on you, but it’s not theirs.
They’re not collecting medical information on you. That’s just something to bear in mind.
Shelly Kramer: Results from the web. There needs to be a gigantic … We’ll just pretend we didn’t hear that. There needs to be a gigantic marketing campaign. A PR campaign around this so that that can help communicate that.
Olivier Blanchard: Yeah. As we’re talking about privacy, my phone was listening to me and responded to a query that I didn’t make. That was fun.
Shelly Kramer: That’s timely. Right? All right. That wraps up our show today. Olivier, thanks so much as always for hanging out here today. For our audience, we appreciate you as well and we’ll see you next time.