Will Americans Actually Use Contact Tracing Apps?

Apps that track users are being hyped as the way to lift lockdowns. But there are reasons to be skeptical.


Governments around the world are touting software-based contact tracing as a novel response to a novel coronavirus. The software aims to replace manual tracing of contacts of people with suspected or confirmed infections, done laboriously by public health workers, with automated tracing based on the proximity of mobile devices.

Their promise: If you install our app, lockdowns may be lifted. "If you want to return to a more liberated economy and society, it is important that we get increased numbers of downloads," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week. "This is the ticket to ensuring that we can have eased restrictions."

"For these apps to work, we will need everyone's cooperation to install and use them," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong said in a nationally televised exhortation.

In the U.S., state and federal health officials are beginning to link app installation to escaping lockdowns. "It's certainly something we should try to figure out," Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said this week.

Legacy media already has been lecturing Americans on the inevitability of installation. The Atlantic's headline called it "Technology That Could Free America From Quarantine." listed it under "What We Must Do to Prevent a Global COVID-19 Depression." The New York Times promised that contact-tracing software will "speed lockdown exit."

Different strains of contact-tracing software are emerging. All of the more prominent systems rely on a centralized server of some sort, either to perform matching of COVID-positive identifiers or to distribute lists of COVID-positive identifiers for matching locally on your device.

The U.K.'s approach gives a nod to privacy concerns, although the app has not yet been released. Public Health England describes it: "Once a member of the public installs the app, it will start logging the distance between their phone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed using Bluetooth Low Energy." If anyone is determined to be COVID-positive, the log can be used to identify anyone in close proximity. (It probably won't be long before police use the logs to answer questions like "Who was within Bluetooth range of the bank teller during the robbery?")

Other approaches are more privacy-protective. The Bluetooth-based system announced by Apple and Google falls into this category. If you choose, your device will transmit random numbers called beacons that change every 10 to 20 minutes. At least daily, the companies say, participating mobile devices "will download a list of beacons that have been verified as belonging to people confirmed as positive for COVID-19 from the relevant public health authority." Matching is done locally and many details seem to be left up to local or regional health officials. (The companies say they won't allow the system to be mandated.)

Software-based contact tracing may work. It may not. To be effective, it will need to overcome significant hurdles, including the limitations of Bluetooth, which can transmit through walls and was never intended as a proxy for close contact. It will need to overcome the problem of limited testing, especially of people who show no symptoms. And it will do little to identify infections arising from lingering aerosols or fomites, virus particles that can remain viable on surfaces for more than a day. (The University of Cambridge's Ross Anderson has a good writeup on the technical and social obstacles.)

The most formidable hurdle will be convincing people to trust the technology. Singapore says fewer than 20 percent of its population has installed TraceTogether since its launch on March 21. In a nation of 1.4 billion people, the Indian government's contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, has reached only 75 million downloads.

Many technocrats will surely succumb to the temptation to make tracing technology mandatory. Australia's government has given mixed signals on this point. India has not: All federal employees are required to install Aarogya Setu, and it reportedly will be pre-installed on smartphones by default. Travel on some forms of public transport in India now requires installation of Aarogya Setu, and many large employers are mandating it. It doesn't seem exactly illegal to decline, but soon it may be difficult to live a normal life unless you give in.

Americans remain obstreperous: A Reuters poll this week found that only half of smartphone users say they would enable contact tracing voluntarily. So expect calls to make it mandatory. Marketplace already is informing us that "COVID-19 tracing apps might not be optional at work" and "it's definitely legal for your employer to require you to use a tracing app." The regulatory enthusiasts at the Center for American Progress suggest: "As a condition of receiving a COVID-19 test in the future, individuals may be required to download the app." Technocrats will point to a model suggesting a 60 percent adoption rate is needed.

Stewart Baker, an attorney who was previously an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, argues at Lawfare that states could force operating system vendors to install contact tracing software on your phone—and even make it unlawful for you to deactivate it. "The governors probably don't need to ask," Baker writes, noting that around 40 states have adopted a public health "emergency" law that sweeps in "communication devices." In addition, he writes, "governors likely have authority to require that residents of their states activate the app."

There are legal arguments that could be made about the scope of public health emergency law. There are constitutional arguments about the First Amendment–protected status of computer code. But more fundamentally, many governors simply haven't proven themselves worthy of trust during the COVID-19 outbreak. Michigan's governor banned motorized boats while allowing non-motorized ones. Kansas churches had to go to court to secure their right to remain open subject to distancing rules, even though shopping malls, libraries, restaurants, and bars were exempted. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, liquor stores, marijuana shops, and summer camps have been deemed "essential" while churches, gun stores, and even 60-acre outdoor shooting ranges must remain closed.

We should not expect officials who get it wrong on the First Amendment and Second Amendment to get it right when it comes to delicate issues of security and privacy.

NEXT: Brickbats: May 2020

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  1. //So expect calls to make it mandatory.//

    I do not understand why they even bother with the preliminary step of asking.

    “The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.”

    -Charles Bukowski

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  2. I’m reasonably certain that the apps are already on our smartphones.

    I even get occasional updates from Google about the places I’ve been the past month or so – it’s really creepy.

    1. Turn off the history feature in Google Maps.

    2. Several years ago, I went back to using old style flip phones. I mostly made the switch because I noticed how much time (and money) I was wasting carrying around a pocket computer with me everywhere. Although, I do also like that I’m not quite as plugged into Big Brother. The only thing I really miss about having a smart phone is being able to check scores wherever I’m at during college football and basketball seasons.

      1. Nice Heinlein reference on your user name.

        1. That guy probably did more to advance libertarian ideas than any politician or academic.

          1. That’s the importance of culture.

  3. no, gracias.

    >>novel coronavirus

    is it still novel to you guys because you haven’t figured out it’s a cold?

  4. Gonna be a lot of phones left on the counter at home – – – – – – – – – – – –

    1. Yep, it’s really weird that I haven’t left my kitchen for the last 7 weeks.

  5. No. Get a warrant.

    1. We’re screwed.

      You just want granny to die.

      1. Both of my grannies have already passed on. Doesn’t impact me.

        1. doesn’t that suck? i had great-grandparents all over too now i got nothing

  6. The way to lift the lockdowns is to lift the lockdowns. And the reason is that they are tyrannical and beyond the pale.

    1. Never let a pandemic go to waste.

    2. The new hotness is now producing clickbait headlines that “previously unaffected areas are now hotspots,” to try and keep the anxiety churning. Yahoo tried that trick today about the outbreak in Paris, Texas–and when you actually read the article, it turns out the “outbreak” was in a nursing home, not the general population.

      With so many cases being traced to nursing homes, one would think that intelligent leadership would take this vector head-on, but apparently it’s a lot easier to punish the population at large than isolate the leading vector of this virus.

      1. Yeah, the major fuckup here hasn’t been lack of testing or anything like that. It has been failure to prevent and contain outbreaks in nursing homes and hospitals. Those seem to be pretty much all of the hotspots.

        1. The Yahoo article was notoriously incomplete on information, as well. They tried to imply that it was burning through the entire county, but 41 out of the 65 reported cases had come from one nursing home in Paris.

          As you point out that our “leaders” have been so utterly incompetent at engaging the illness in what should be one of the easiest places to do so–a fucking nursing home–should put the lot of them in jail for sheer public negligence.

          1. Perhaps you are missing the point. While the elderly population is certainly more susceptible, it’s also a costly group of folks, [financially expendable] who can then be contained while driving up the raw numbers of deaths. If you take out the number of 75+ year olds who have died in the US, this doesn’t look like a plague that justifies a damn thing, let alone the revocation of the entire Bill of Rights. Sounds like a big win-win for authoritarians.

            The case being made here is that despite less than 1/3 of 1% of the US population confirmed, half of newly tested people having had no symptoms, and 2/3 of the total deaths are in people over age 75 [82% being of 65+] the push is on to control the movements of 100% of the population, with zero logic as to how that actually stops anything.

      2. Just like SD with the Smithfield outbreak. MSM was all about bashing Kristi Noem with “South Dakota is the USA’s biggest new hotspot” when 80% of our cases are in one county, and about 75% of those are the Smithfield workers and their families.

  7. Their promise: If you install our app, lockdowns may be lifted. “If you want to return to a more liberated economy and society, it is important that we get increased numbers of downloads,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week. “This is the ticket to ensuring that we can have eased restrictions.”

    Morrison is a mobster. What a little shit.

  8. Bah. I just won’t use a phone. I barely use it as it is.


  9. Isn’t the NSA a contact-tracing app?

    1. No

  10. Won’t this require everyone to use the same App?

    1. Perhaps the government could issue everyone a phone with the approved app built in.

    2. Apple and Android are colluding.

      1. Ahem. Apple and Google are colluding to make their iOS and Android features compatible.

  11. Well, I don’t have a smart phone, and likely never will. Don’t get me wrong — I started using computers (a Tandy 1000), back in the “dark ages.” I remember having to dial up a number on my 300 bps phone-modem to hook up to a local library. I absolutely love the “information age,” but somehow I never needed to be hooked into it 24/7.

    That being said:

    “Americans remain obstreperous: A Reuters poll this week found that only half of smartphone users say they would enable contact tracing voluntarily.”

    I am pretty sure when I was a young adult, that the number of people agreeing to be tracked everywhere they went would have been less than ten percent. Way less.

    1. I am pretty sure when I was a young adult, that the number of people agreeing to be tracked everywhere they went would have been less than ten percent. Way less.

      You’re not going to get any “likes” if you shut yourself off like that.

      1. LOL. Luckily, I don’t rely on “likes” as a measure of my self-worth.

        1. Check out Mr Above-it-all. “Likes” are the engine of modern capitalism.

          1. And here I thought it was money, and how people spend it, that drives free markets….. my mistake, I guess.

            1. Likes are monetized in today’s world.

              1. ‘Likes’ have always been monetized. We just used to call them things like Nielsen Ratings.

                It’s really nothing new, except for the fact that any yahoo in their garage can produce a semi-professional entertainment product.

                One Example of Yahoos Making Things People Watch

                1. True.

        2. dislike . . .

    2. I am pretty sure when I was a young adult, that the number of people agreeing to be tracked everywhere they went would have been less than ten percent. Way less.

      Yeah – I feel like 30-40 years ago the reaction would have been “to stop the virus spreading we need the government to track the movement of everyone? So you’re saying we can’t stop the virus from spreading?”

      1. Back then it wasn’t possible. Today just about everyone carries around a pocket computer that tracks their every move with or without their consent.

        Can’t afford one? Don’t sweat it, the government will buy you one. Can’t imagine why they would want you in the data-net…oh right. The tracking.

        Still doesn’t stop my father-in-law from using a flip phone from the stone ages, and he’s far from the only one.

        1. I’m with your father-in-law. My reasons for using a flip phone are almost all practical (they’re smaller, lighter, cheaper, less of a distraction, etc.).

          Whenever I take it out of my pocket when I’m talking to someone, I either get a big laugh (I just laugh about it right along with them), or I get looked at like I’m some kind of tin-foil-hat, anti-social, crazy person. It’s really crazy how dependent society has become on always being plugged into each other… to the point of stigmatizing those who aren’t.

    3. Find my previous posts on using a dumbphone (flipfone) and shutting it off when not using it (about 2 minutes every 3 months).

      And posts about similarities to the 9/11 overreaction.

      “…land of the free and home of the brave?”? LOL degrading into sneers of rage and sobs of loss.

      The contemporary American is more gullible than Charlie Brown running up to the football Lucy is holding. (Did I just show my age?)

      1. “The contemporary American is more gullible than Charlie Brown running up to the football Lucy is holding…”

        Great metaphor. I will make use of it. Thanks.

  12. I just can’t fucking believe that people are still talking about this as if it can be contained. It is just utter insanity. It’s out there. It’s going to spread. Get over it. And why do we want this to last longer than it has to?

    1. Exactly. This is science and those who deny it are deniers, not the other way around.

    2. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who legitimately believe that if they get just a few more weeks of lockdowns, that UBI will be implemented and they finally get the Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communist utopia they’ve been longing for.

  13. I don’t even know why they bother. They track everyone anyway (didn’t google have tons of data on that?).

  14. So… what’s this noise about Bernie complaining about Trump nationalizing the meat-packing industry?

    1. Apparently it was only right for Trump to nationalize the ventilator industry, the lives of whose workers don’t matter.

      1. And he didn’t even nationalized them. What he did was make them essential under federal guidelines (who would have thunk that eating is essential?) so that governors can’t order them shutdown.

    2. Again Sanders proves he has no concept of the terminology that he uses or is at least is culpable in redefining it to his own political purposes. Likely Sanders is simply pissed that HE didn’t get to truly nationalize it. Cuz like Denmark is Socialist.

  15. My BIL says the deviants are smarter than the guys who come up with these apps. He’s gonna disarm. Not worried. Fuck ’em all.


  16. No

  17. Look, if you guys want us to take the gun away from the economies head just let us track you everywhere you go from now on. We gave ourselves this power, go ahead and trust us.

    -The Government

    And many people will go along with it, because like 9/11 fear makes people irrational which leads to power grabs by the central government.

    After all, it’s ‘for our own good’ or ‘for the children’ or ‘if it saves one life’.

    1. “After all, it’s ‘for our own good’ or ‘for the children’ or ‘if it saves one life’.”

      So are we talking stopping abortion, or this other virus thing?

      1. Well, the far left knows exactly when life starts and they make sure that abortions only happen if life hasn’t started yet.

        The arguments for abortion are compelling to me, at least some of them, but it’s always been pretty hard for me to ignore that the demographics of abortion line up pretty exactly with what Planned Parenthood was founded to accomplish.

        Essentially the Progressive Left hasn’t changed one iota, they’ve just learned to hide their eugenics a little more carefully.

        1. All part of the Progressive Plantation. Now boy, ya’ll can’t be havin’ too many chillen…we gonna take dat one. You’ll thank us later.

  18. I just don’t see how they can pull this off.

    Look at the positive. If you know people who freely do it, you know they’re the profile to likely snitch on you. It’s a way to know how to track an enemy.

  19. Today in The Atlantic.

    Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal
    In the debate over freedom versus control of the global network, China was largely correct, and the U.S. was wrong.

    1. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently boasted, “The world has faced pandemics before, but this time we have a new superpower: the ability to gather and share data for good.”

      But instead, he continued, we decided to do everything we can to scare the shit out of people because that sells more ads.

      1. Look, you can’t let average people start panics on Facebook or Google. It’s like shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater!

        That’s the governments job.

    2. That article is pretty scary. Its thesis is essentially “free speech is dangerous because when you try to speak freely, governments will persecute you, so it’s really only pragmatic that governments prevent people from saying things that might get them persecuted.”

      1. China was right. The government owns you.

      2. Don’t poke the hornet’s nest with a stick.

    3. Jesus Christ. It takes some real sand to unironically stan for the Chinks that hard, after the shit they just pulled the last few months.

  20. Just open up your phone and remove the bluetooth antenna I guess. But mostly people will just leave the phones at home. Mandatory? I don’t see how they will enforce it. They can’t enforce any mask ordinances well enough. I estimate they will never reach 60%. But at least those who put it on their phones will identify themselves as weak, ineffectual and slaves of the state.

    Work requires it? Expect lots of lawsuits. And finally is this technology even proven? My stupid phone still thinks I live a block away. So much for Silicon Valley nerds.

    1. Yeah, unless the government goes so far as to mandate Bluetooth be on at all times, you can just turn it off. If they go that far, Bluetooth wouldn’t be that hard to jam.

    2. Take the screens from a few microwave ovens and make a faraday cage for your phone. Take it out when you need to use it.

  21. Nope, just like taxes it will never go away and expand forever.

    1. My address? 1060 West Addision.

  22. Let’s say people do use it in significant numbers, it will result in an endless series of quarantines for millions of people. In a place like New York city, there’s no way you’re not going to be in proximity to someone with the virus in the course of daily life. You ride the subway, you and everyone else next to someone with the virus, gets locked down for 14 days. You get out, go to the supermarket, you’re next to someone, locked down for another 14 days. Get out, go to a bar, boom another lockdown. It’s going be endless series of lockdowns for millions of people. No ability to make plans or have anything resembling normal life with the next lockdown hovering over you.

    And how is it going to be enforced? Are there going to be phone police at the entrance to every establishment checking phones for the app and making sure bluetooth is on? How are they going to stop people from using airplane mode or turning off their phone as soon as they get in?

  23. If they make it mandatory, I will shut my phone off and leave it home. I will not be tracked like an animal. More government surveillance. What could go wrong?

    1. The phone police will stop and frisk you and when they see you don’t have a phone send you to the reeducation camp.

  24. Not on your fucking life. Go back to a flip phone if need be. I hate intrusive Gov’t.

  25. Incredibly mixed message here: Positive for antibodies is a good thing. It is the GOAL LINE. Herd immunity and the virus vanishes at 50 to 60%. No testing required.

  26. Not just no – f@#k no! And if they try to sneak it in or make it mandatory – I’ll go back to a flip phone or ditch cell altogether and back to a land line.

  27. At times like this, I’m a childish anarchist. Sure, I could just leave any and all tracking devices at home but that isn’t enough to satisfy me. It would be much more entertaining to poison the well with bad data.

    Rig up some Arduino boards that use free Wi-Fi Hotspots with the app loaded and attach them to anything and everything that moves through densely populated areas on a constant basis.

    You also configure those devices to spoof unique identifiers like the IMEI and MAC addresses on a random interval with different C-19 results. Each device could emulate thousands of unique devices in a single day. If you could spoof more than one instance on every device, you could wreak havoc in short order.

    If there is someone you REALLY don’t like, attach one to them with a positive C-19 result and wait for the chaos to ensue. There would be lock downs everywhere they go but no one could trace it to them because they don’t know they have it.

    It doesn’t take much bad data to poison a well like this. When they use V2V communications, a compromised system sending bad data can cause the whole system to collapse on itself.

    Targeted deployments around federal and state buildings could be really disruptive. You could bring legislative bodies to a stand still. Attach one to the governor’s cat and pull out a bag of popcorn.

    Naturally, I would never do something like this because that would be irresponsible and probably illegal. I’m just saying that if one were so inclined, they COULD do it. If I have thought of it, I guarantee that others have who will actually try it.

    1. Actually, when I think about it, there are many ways that this system could be weaponized to disrupt nearly anything that involves the movement of people and things. Those methods could be highly sophisticated or they could be very rudimentary.

      For example, it could be used for military or industrial espionage by planting devices that are either a false positive or a person who should be reporting as positive when the device they carry is not reporting that condition.

      There are also questions around the source of record. The database(s) that devices will interact with is not the source of record. They are more like servicing databases that individual EMRs will report into.

      To compromise the servicing databases, you look for the source of record with the weakest security. From there, you could inject or extract whatever you want to compromise the integrity of the whole system.

      You could pay medical coders to plant false records into EMRs or pay lab techs to falsify test results. You could use a similar technique by planting devices on unsuspecting people with false positives.

      That leads me to another question. How are test results verified in the app itself? Can you self report or is it only subject to change based on a cryptographic signature in the servicing database itself?

      If it is secured with a cryptographic signature, that is much more secure and it would mitigate bad actors but only up to a point. But that also means that you must test the vast majority of the population and that the results are bullet proof.

      Again, polluting or exposing a single source of record would allow you poison the well or use targeted attacks in one of several different ways. In a distributed system of EMRs that report in, one or several of them will be inherently less secure.

      Frankly, I don’t know how you could design a system like this to be completely secure and reliable. Privacy is certainly an area of concern but when you consider how it could be weaponized, privacy could be the least of our worries.

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