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Can the next generation of contact-tracing apps avoid past mistakes?

As public health agencies struggle to contain the spread of coronavirus, many have turned to contract tracing, the process of tracking down everyone who has come into contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19.

To help with contact tracing, many states have tried to leverage the ubiquity of smartphones, building apps that can track the movement of individuals via their phones and sending notifications to those who have come near a coronavirus patient. Google and Apple threw their weight behind the idea, collaborating on an exposure notifications API that agencies could use to develop secure apps.

Despite the hype, many of these apps have crashed and burned, ruined by low adoption rates, poor messaging, and shoddy privacy protections. An app launched in North Dakota was later found to be violating its own privacy policy, a debacle that cast doubt on the idea of using contact-tracing apps. Many states ended up declining to use the Google/Apple API, opting for their own systems.

As countries try to contain the pandemic, these systems remain a vital tool. “Every notification is potentially a life saved,” Cornell professor Sarah Kreps told Digital Trends.

Contact tracing 2.0

The PathCheck Foundation, a nonprofit spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this spring, is trying to do exposure notification better. As CEO Adam Berrey told us: “Our mission is to help to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and revitalize the economy without sacrificing personal privacy and liberty.”

Contact Tracing app illustration
Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

On Thursday, PathCheck announced that it is launching exposure notification systems in seven jurisdictions including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, as well as the PathCheck Alliance, a partnership with several major tech companies including Intel. We spoke with Berrey about PathCheck’s approach and how it can avoid the mistakes of previous contact-tracing attempts.

A boost from tech titans

Berrey considers Pathcheck to be part of a second generation of exposure notification apps, and he thinks there are three main reasons why this new wave will be better than the last one.

According to Berrey, the first generation took a scattershot approach to sensor technology and privacy protections.

“All the “1.0” digital contract-tracing solutions that were put in the market were really app vendors working independently to try to come up with solutions,” he explains.

PathCheck embraces the Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) API, which allows it to take full advantage of operating systems that dominate the market.

Markus Winkler/Unsplash

“There’s two vendors, Apple and Google, that control 90% of the smartphone market and are strongly behind this technology strategy, and also the sort approach to how these apps are being rolled out. That’s important because these apps are using hardware operating system-level features, and there needs to be strong support in order for the features to be used well and to work well.”

Second, GAEN offers strong privacy protections, which are essential for wooing a public that may be skeptical of installing government apps. PathCheck keeps data decentralized, an approach that experts like Kreps laud.

“Google and Apple have been very careful about designing it in a private privacy-preserving way,” Berrey says. “I think they’ve put in place essentially a self-regulatory scheme to make sure that all the apps that jurisdictions deploy stay compliant with those privacy-preserving strategies. That’s important in terms of building consumer trust over time.”

Finally, Pathcheck’s approach is designed to be flexible, so different jurisdictions can tailor their exposure notification systems to their particular needs.

“Beyond the core, basic flow of exposure notification,” Berrey explains, “there’s room for that approach to be adapted to the unique needs of each jurisdiction. That flexibility is really important because there’s different levels of penetration for testing. There’s different approaches for how they want to integrate exposure notifications.”

Swaying the public remains crucial

No matter how well-designed an exposure notification system is, jurisdictions will still need to convince individuals to get on board, and optics are important. Berrey suggests that jurisdictions first think about how to tailor their app to their populace.

Things like “a good name; a friendly, easy onboarding process; clear language that is easy to understand” can all help increase adoption, he said.

“The second piece is organizing a good launch program,” he says. “It’s not just about marketing, but it’s also about building a community coalition behind the effort. I think this is consistent with other large-scale public responses to the pandemic. Mask-wearing and social distancing as two really good examples.”

Bringing celebrities, influencers, schools, and businesses into the fold can also help sway the public.

“I think we haven’t quite gotten to the tipping point yet where people have really come to understand what the value proposition is and why they should be downloading their state or country’s exposure notification app,” he says, but he’s confident these systems will gain ground “as more and more of these roll out, as people gain a little bit of a greater awareness for how the apps work, how they preserve privacy, and why they’re a good strategy to complement some of the other things that folks are doing like social distancing, mask wearing, and testing.”

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Will Nicol
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Will Nicol is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends. He covers a variety of subjects, particularly emerging technologies, movies…
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