On the podcast: Possibilities and limitations of digital contact tracing

Lee: But as Kaia points out, many of us are already being tracked by our devices in our day to day lives.

Kaia: People can tell Google, “yeah, track my location,” and you can go back and you can see exactly where you’ve been. You can see, did I go there a plane? Did I walk? Did I bus, or did I bike? All based off of the speed you’ve been moving. They can determine your pace. So since your phone is already with you all the time, it’s constantly tracking you if you enable these services. And there are so many other programs that are already doing that; I don’t think it’ll be difficult to add in contact tracing abilities. But the question is, Is that something people are going to want and going to be comfortable using?

Josh: Our mobile devices are communicating with each other to let us understand and have a canonical reference point of who we’ve interacted with so that once, you know, somebody is tested positive, you can both look at it retrospectively, but you can also be more proactive. Done right, in many ways, it is really special because it can create a new standard for privacy. You don’t need to know who might have gotten you infected; you only need to know that you might be at risk, and there may not be any real record of exactly how the spread was, which reduces a lot of the social stigma. On the other hand, it requires wide-scale adoption in order to be useful. Given that digital contact tracing is largely about a smartphone with a set of apps installed, with data stores that lie with public health authorities checking persistently, poorer communities are less likely to use them. Immigrant communities are less likely to trust their data being, risk being promulgated. It actually takes our most vulnerable populations in a society and has them least likely to be able to access that, a given resource. To really grapple with those issues is going to continue to be a challenge of our generation, because I don’t think we have very concrete answers. We still have this problem of policymakers who don’t really understand the technology better, but are being asked to be the adjudicators; and we have a bunch of technologists who don’t really understand the public policy pressures or implications or considerations. And we’ve got to get better and better at that or it will always feel binary. We’ll always be trading something for something else. So in this case, privacy for what feels like potential health outcomes. But I’d offer it doesn’t need to be that way. We can use better privacy techniques. It can be done. That should be what motivates those of us on the technology side, those of us on the investment side. It’s that both, and because that’s what really has those beneficial outcomes that create new markets, that create new ways of thinking, that create new opportunities. And it’s totally achievable, hard as it feels in a moment like this.

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