Within the past month, the Omicron variant of the COVID virus has ravaged through the United States. The daily average on January 13th was 803,780 cases, a record-breaking number throughout the entire pandemic. Now more than ever, pressure has been placed on contact tracing to reduce the exposure to the highly transmissible virus. Thus, a new method of tracing has been implemented: mobile notifications. If designed correctly, these notifications would not only distribute important information to those who have contracted the disease, but it would also provide a new contactless form of instant communication for health professionals. This feature, available on any smart phone, has the chance to drastically change how public health professionals use technology to connect with the public.
The structure behind exposure notifications is relatively simple. For Android users, an app is available to download on Google Play. For Apple users, device settings have an option to turn on these updates. Once turned on, a random ID is created for your device which changes every 10 to 20 minutes to avoid exact location tracking, as this is an invasion of privacy. Then, when close to another person’s device, these IDs are exchanged so that if one person reports a positive COVID diagnosis, the other device will get a notification, regardless of the relation to the person. These alerts also are determined by how strong the signals of each phone intercept with each other, representing a close proximity to an infected person. These notifications are anonymous and only inform the device of exposure to COVID along with public health guidelines to follow. Google ensures that these notifications do not track locations and are not used by anyone but health officials. Phone users also always have the option to turn off these notifications at all times.
This feature is most promising with the recent surge of cases, as the Omicron variant has shown to be easily transmissible between close contacts. Quick notifications of exposure may limit the impact of unaware carriers of COVID. As of December 29th, 2021, 27 US states and territories have made these notifications available on devices, including Massachusetts. However, it is still unclear whether this system will make any substantial difference. For one, Apple and Google are unable to force this application onto all of its users to abide by the consumer’s protection and rights. Therefore, not all smart phone users will have this feature enabled on their phone, limiting the reach of contact tracing. It also becomes an issue when people with these exposure notifications don’t follow through with isolating themselves and getting tested. Some may not feel like taking the necessary precautions since these messages are so casual. Others may wonder if it is a glitch in technology, since one of the biggest issues with the software is the lack of evidence to the consumer proving exposure. However, in order to ensure privacy to everyone involved in the program, no evidence can really be shown. Finally, since the system relies on self-report of diagnosis, it is overall unreliable as the only source of contact tracing.
This new software poses a difficult question when it comes to how much privacy the individual should give up for the common good. Although the program is created specifically so that none of the user’s information is shared with non-health care professionals, it still is a scary realization that cell phones can be easily wired to generate and share our personal information. On one hand, online COVID tracing might help the population limit the impact of the pandemic as a whole. On the other, phone tracing can be seen as invasive and confusing to many citizens. There is an undefined line between human growth and personal invasion, and it is being tested.