With the coronavirus pandemic perhaps showing signs of letting up in some countries throughout Europe and beyond, you might have heard a good deal of conversation around contact tracing. Particularly, in the context of reducing lockdown and stay at home measures as countries look toward life after COVID-19. But what is contact tracing? How does it work? What’s that thing Apple and Google are doing? Should I be concerned about my privacy? For answers to all these questions and more, check out our deep dive into the world of contact tracing.
In essence, contact tracing does exactly what it says on the tin, it traces contact. It’s used the world over to chart and manage the spread of infectious diseases (including sexually transmitted ones) by establishing who an infected person has had contact with. This, in turn, allows people who’ve potentially been exposed to a disease or virus to be notified, adjusting their behavior accordingly so as to reduce and slow down the spread of disease. Right now, of course, that disease is COVID-19.
The big headlines in recent weeks, and the reason for our interest in contact tracing, is that governments and tech firms the world over are trying to automate the process using technology. That’s because traditional contact tracing involves public health workers manually interviewing a patient and contacting anyone they might have been in contact with. Because COVID-19 is so prevalent and widespread, that simply isn’t practical in this case. But contact tracing is still important, the director-general of WHO stating that “tracing every contact must be the backbone of the response in every country.” As a recent paper from Johns Hopkins noted:
Several countries have demonstrated that an approach of aggressive case-finding and contact tracing can be an effective measure in helping to control the spread of COVID-19.
Automating the process
Contact tracing by way of a smartphone app is simply an extension of this established medical practice, whereby interviews and phone calls are replaced with apps, Bluetooth (or GPS), and notifications. Whilst governments are all working on their own apps, the principle for each of them remains the same. Apple and Google have teamed up to develop their own contact tracing technology, launching APIs, and operating system-level technology. First, Apple and Google will release APIs on April 28, enabling interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. Apple and Google are also looking to build the functionality into its underlying iOS and Android platforms, a solution they say will be “more robust” and allow more people to participate.
So how does it work?
So, you download a contact tracing app. Imagine you go out to buy groceries, or take a walk for some exercise. On that journey, you encounter (come close to) 10 people, each of whom also have a contact tracing app installed on their smartphone. A few days later, you or one of those 10 people is diagnosed with COVID-19. You (or whoever has been infected) notifies the relevant public health authority. With the consent of the infected party, the 10 other people who that person has been in contact are notified that they have come into “contact” with the virus, possibly with recommendations to self-isolate, or to take some other relevant measures.
What are the benefits of this?
Until there is a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, it is vitally important that governments and health authorities can track and isolate cases, as well as notifying people who may also have been infected. This will help to prevent the cases and infections from spiking a second time as lockdown restrictions are slowly lifted. As such, contact tracing apps are not very effective in cases where infections are rampant and the virus is in full swing. They are also only likely to be introduced towards the back end of “the curve” when public health authorities have the capacity to deal with each person that is infected.
As the Financial Times notes, in the UK, the NHS is hoping to launch an app to provide contact tracing, but it’s also significantly increased the number of human contact tracers on its books, that’s because not everyone will download the app. (They use the example of Singapore, where a contact tracing app has only been downloaded by 17% of the population)
Just yesterday, NHSX, the digital branch of the UK’s NHS, published a blog post detailing its plans to launch a contact-tracing app stating:
The app automates the laborious process of contact tracing – with the goal of reducing transmission of the virus by alerting people who may have been exposed so they can take action to protect themselves, the people they care about, and the NHS. We believe this could be important in helping the country return to normality and beating coronavirus.
This approach has also proven successful in countries like New Zealand and Iceland.
So am I being “traced”?
Well, not really. The moniker “contact tracing” has proven itself to be a little concerning for some people. And in some revisions to its contact tracing initiative Apple and Google yesterday revealed that they were now referring to it instead as an “exposure notification” system. What’s being traced, is contact between humans, not your location or movement, at least where a system uses Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ rather than GPS.
Blueooth VS GPS
There are two main ways to monitor contact tracing. In Asia, where countries carry the lessons of the 2003 SARS outbreak, several metrics including GPS location data is used to monitor contact. As Johns Hopkins notes:
One example of extensive contact tracing comes from South Korea (population 51.47 million), a country that was able to develop contact tracing plans in response to the spread of a different coronavirus, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2015. This experience also prompted the revision of several laws to help improve outbreak response. Contact tracing in South Korea incorporates patient interviews as well as the use of medical records, cell phone GPS records, credit card transaction records, and closed-circuit television.
In countries such as the U.S. and in Europe, this level of surveillance would probably be considered a gross invasion of privacy (not that this already happens, we’ll get to that). That’s why most European countries, and Apple and Google’s contact tracing technology is based on Bluetooth handshakes. Apple and Google’s technology uses “anonymous identifier beacons” which change frequently, these are sent between devices via Bluetooth. This short-range, local technology means that whilst your interactions with other devices are being tracked (but held locally), your movement is not being monitored by GPS.
The issue of GPS has been raised by some concerned onlookers, such as Senator Josh Hawley who raised concerns at the prospect of this data being combined with GPS data and used for other purposes like advertising.
In contrast, however, a recent report from Reuters noted that states pioneering apps, North and South Dakota, as well as Utah, believe that using “GPS in tandem with Bluetooth is key to making the system viable.”
It seems that GPS may become a sticking point of contact tracing discussions in the coming weeks. And perhaps the most important thing to understand about contact tracing is that this is uncharted territory and that countries and states are divided on how best to implement it whilst protecting its citizens. This is very much a work-in-progress.
Europe at loggerheads
A prime example of this is in Europe, where EU heavyweights France and Germany have both separately clashed with Apple over its own contact tracing apps. In Europe there are two distinct camps, revolving around centralized and decentralized tracing. The former involves contact tracing that includes a centralized database of users, the latter does not. Apple and Google have staunchly opposed centralized databases. Two tenets of their technology are that it doesn’t collect personally identifiable information or location data, and the list of people you’ve been in contact with never leaves your phone.
Both France and Germany support a platform developed by the Pan-European-Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing group or PEPP-PT. France has expressed its own anger over claims Apple is blocking its contact tracing app, and EU rhetoric aimed at Apple and Google has been fairly hostile. Similarly the NHS has clashed with the EU for the same reason, however it is unclear at this stage which approach the UK has decided to adopt.
Apple and Google have told countries that the privacy principles behind its technology “are not going to change.” That means that if countries release apps not supported by Google or Apple, they’ll be essentially useless. They will only work when the app is open on your screen, not in the background, as is practically essential for them to be effective.
Should I be concerned about my privacy?
No one can force you to download a contact tracing app, so if you’re worried about privacy, you can abstain from partaking. The problem is that for contact tracing to be effective, a lot of people need to take part, some estimates have suggested as much as 80% of the population. So should you be concerned about privacy? We caught up with cybersecurity expert Rich Mogull regarding Apple and Google’s recent initiative, and this is what the said:
Apple and Google appear to be working hard to maintain privacy but there is always some level of risk. The difference between these apps and normal cell phone tracking is the precision- they are designed more to track your direct contact with other individuals. However, I’m still more concerned with our telecom providers tracking all movement and basically selling it for marketing. The key with these apps is use and abuse, and that will be more on the government than the operating system providers.
Rich also said that the system is “pretty well designed” to limit abuse and that Apple and Google’s system at least has “a lot of strong privacy protections.” His most telling statement, however, is about telecom providers tracking your movement.
As a recent TNW piece stated:
Coronavirus didn’t kill our privacy — it just exposed the corpse
The truth is that for those of us connected to the world through cell phones, not much of what we do is private anymore. TNW notes how “in most countries, only minor amendments of the laws sufficed to introduce Covid-19 surveillance”, because of how anemic most privacy protections are globally. To Rich’s point, if you decide not to download a contact tracing app because you’re worried about your privacy, then you should stop using a smartphone altogether. If anything, Apple and Google’s commitment to anonymized data, not tracking your location, and ensuring that the technology is only used for the COVID-19 pandemic (and not beyond it) makes its contact tracing technology a whole lot more private than most internet services.
Whilst there are plenty of issues and concerns to iron out, split opinions about the use of data and concerns about these apps and surveillance, it seems inevitable that contact tracing apps will become a vital part of our emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic in both Europe and the U.S. Contact tracing doesn’t seem like something we should be afraid of, as mentioned, the offering from Google and Apple seems far less intrusive than plenty of other services and apps. Contact tracing needs to be done correctly, but if it is, there certainly isn’t a reason to be more concerned about contact tracing than any other kind of mobile service you’ve already engaged with.
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Residents being advised of potential coronavirus exposure at Halifax store – Globalnews.ca
NSHA Public Health is advising customers of a building supply store of potential exposure to COVID-19.
They say the risk of contact with the virus happened at Rona on 6055 Almon St., Halifax on May 23, 25 and 28.
“Public Health is directly contacting anyone known to be a close contact of the person(s) confirmed to have COVID-19. While most people have been contacted, there could be some contacts that Public Health is not aware of,” NSHA said in a statement on Saturday.
According to NSHA, anyone exposed to the virus on the announced dates at this location may develop symptoms up to 14 days from the last date they were at this location. This would be up to, and including, June 11, 2020.
People are being asked self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.
COVID-19 symptoms include:
- Fever (chills, sweats, etc.)
- Cough (new or worsening)
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle aches
- Nasal congestion or runny nose
- Hoarse voice
- DiarrheaUnusual fatigue
- Loss of sense of smell or taste
- Red, purple or blueish lesions, on the feet, toes or fingers without clear cause
If an individual has any COVID-19 symptoms, they are being asked to call 811 for assessment, to self-isolate until they receive 811 advice on what to do next and not to go directly to a COVID-19 assessment centre without being directed to do so.
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Sony CEO Opens Up on PlayStation 5 Pricing Strategy – Essentially Sports
Sony is finally opening-up on its next-gen console, PlayStation 5, after having kept mum for most of the year. With a game reveal showcase now confirmed for June 4, we can expect further news to start flowing in. While next week’s showcase is sure to give us something about the console itself, do not expect too much. Sony is bound to continue keeping its cards close to its chest. However, Sony PlayStation’s CEO, Jim Ryan, did touch upon a few elements regarding the console in a sit-down with gamesindustry.biz.
The reports, mostly unconfirmed, about PlayStation 5 have surely given the console’s loyal community a bit of anxiety. The first half of the year has more or less been about how Sony has run into trouble due to the pandemic ravaging our globe. Be it a possibility of a delay, or the disturbance in the production capacity of the new console, the news was pretty grim until this month.
The biggest letdown was perhaps the news report claiming the launch price of the console could be around $450-500. A Bloomberg report claimed the high production cost of the units would force Sony to hike up the launch price. But would that work for them? After all, back when it hiked up the launch price for PS3, it suffered dearly.
However, this month has brought in a much-needed sense of relief among the fans. The tech giant’s financial reports confirmed the console launch was on track. Moreover, we also got an official word of a “compelling lineup of games.”
PlayStation 5 CEO assures “best possible value proposition”
In his chat with gamesindustry.biz, Jim Ryan did brush upon the subject of the price, unsurprisingly, though, refrained from giving us an estimate. He did admit that times are a bit unusual, and vowed to offer the “best possible value proposition.”
“Now, who knows how this recession is going to look, how deep it will be and how long it will last.
“I think the best way that we can address this is by providing the best possible value proposition that we can. I don’t necessarily mean lowest price. Value is a combination of many things. In our area it means games, it means number of games, depth of games, breadth of games, quality of games, price of games… all of these things and how they avail themselves of the feature set of the platform.”
While this sounds quite noncommittal, let’s hope the PS3 debacle compels them to keep the price on the lower end of the spectrum. However, there is a good possibility that Sony will hike the price up from the PS4 launch ($399). Unless, of course, it is ready to bear some significant initial losses.
“Increase in development budgets”
Ryan admitted that the new-age graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 5 will also increase the game-development costs.
“I think, to the extent that the technology enables the graphics side of it to become more interesting and life-like, (the games) will become slightly more human-intensive and capital intensive to produce. So yes, we think there probably will be an increase in development budgets. We don’t see it as being a massive increase, and that’s why we want to do more faster than we have ever done before, to provide a fertile install base for people who make games to be able to monetize against.”
We better expect the next-gen console and games to put a strain on our wallets. Well, at least in the initial phase. But then again, it has never really been all that cheap, has it?
Microsoft 'to replace journalists with robots' – BBC News
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Microsoft is to replace dozens of contract journalists on its MSN website and use automated systems to select news stories, US and UK media report.
The curating of stories from news organisations and selection of headlines and pictures for the MSN site is currently done by journalists.
Artificial intelligence will perform these news production tasks, sources told the
Microsoft said it was part of an evaluation of its business.
The US tech giant said in a statement: “Like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis. This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, redeployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic.”
Microsoft, like some other tech companies, pays news organisations to use their content on its website.
But it employs journalists to decide which stories to display and how they are presented.
Around 50 contract news producers will lose their jobs at the end of June, the Seattle Times reports, but a team of full-time journalists will remain.
“It’s demoralising to think machines can replace us but there you go,” one of those facing redundancy told the paper.
Some sacked journalists warned that artificial intelligence may not be fully familiar with strict editorial guidelines, and could end up letting through inappropriate stories.
Twenty-seven of those losing their jobs are employed by the UK’s PA Media,
the Guardian reports
One journalist quoted in the paper said: “I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI is going to take all our jobs – now it’s taken mine.”
Microsoft is one of many tech companies experimenting with forms of so-called robot journalism to cut costs. Google is also investing in projects to understand how it might work.
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