Contact Tracing: What If People Don’t Own Smart Phones?

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gabriel conroy

Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer.

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  1. Avatar Murali
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    says:

    Smartphones aren’t that expensive. iPhones are, but i got a mid range Xiaomi (the miA2 lite, without recontracting) at about $150. And that was two years ago. Everyone below 70 should have a smartphone. My grandmother just got one last year and she’s in her 80s. And she uses it to WhatsApp to her siblings in India. I find it surprising that there are people in America who don’t have smartphones.

    The app itself is free. Or at least the government in Singapore made it free for us. As any government which implements this should. The one in Singapore uses Bluetooth to establish contact tracing.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Murali
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      says:

      That’s something I didn’t know. (It may be common knowledge and I just might not have looked into it.) I understood that one needed a subscription in order to keep the phone working. But maybe that’s mistaken?Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to gabriel conroy
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        says:

        You can buy pay-in-advance phones that don’t have a plan. American spy novels are now big on people buying “burner” phones that are prepaid and will be used only once. They come with more prepaid minutes than the spy uses, the purpose is to not be tracked by your phone. The place where I usually buy gas has signs up at the pump to remind you that you can “load up” your prepaid phone for any of the big networks there.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Michael Cain
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          says:

          Are you guys referring to buying a phone itself or buying a pre-paid or post-paid sim card.

          At least here and everywhere else I have been (except the US in 2012) your plan follows your sim card. I remember buying a verizon phone in the US, but I thought you guys would have converted to GSM by now.

          I’ve looked it up, and apparently only AT&T and T-mobile have converted to GSM.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Murali
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            says:

            Both AT&T and T-Mobile use both CDMA and GSM. T-Mobile only recently because of acquiring Sprint and Sprint’s CDMA network. AT&T has a long twisted merger and acquisition history that resulted in them having both types.

            All of the networks will eventually migrate to VoLTE for new phones, I believe.

            The US is one of the countries where SIM registration is not required. TTBOMK, there are a significant number of people who buy pre-paid SIMs and “refill” them, all with cash, and never provide any identity information. The government could track down the person using the SIM if they wanted to work hard enough, using metadata and enough investigators.Report

        • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Michael Cain
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          says:

          I’m sure I could look it up, but are those buy-in-advance phones smart phones or dumb phones?Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to gabriel conroy
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            says:

            Any kind of phone that one can find to buy outright, one can pay for an active SIM card, stick it in the SIM slot, and have an active line.

            Also the contact tracing apps that use Bluetooth for proximity sensing would work fine on phones that don’t have an active SIM in them (which some folks use as pocket tablets / cameras / music players).Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Murali
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      says:

      The US has… issues. There are large areas where there is no data service (as I mentioned somewhere else today, the Great Plains averages less than 10 people per square mile, and is five times the size of the UK). The last trip we made across the GP to visit relatives, we noticed that there were significant stretches along the interstate where we had either no service, or voice only service. There are many poor people who buy prepaid phones that have very limited data capabilities or even no data service. I only have one government app on my phone — buy tickets for the commuter rail — but I had to download it from Google’s Play Store, and Google won’t let me in, even for free stuff, unless I’ve given them a credit card number.Report

  2. Avatar InMD
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    says:

    I’m cynical about it for cranky civil libertarian reasons. Maybe the counter-argument is that the government effectively already has the ability and in fact is tracking everyone but that doesn’t make me feel better. Our state actors and law enforcement that run this stuff aren’t particularly competent or trustworthy and the idea that it just goes away after the pandemic is inconsistent with all experience and history.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to InMD
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      says:

      I remember people floating that idea when EZ-Pass and similar radio-tag-auto-toll systems came out (mostly it was “they’ll just use your entry and exit times to calculate your average speed and then automatically send you a speeding ticket”) but as far as I can tell nobody’s actually done that.

      …not that they couldn’t, they just haven’t, and also-as-far-as-I-can-tell there’s no actual law against it, just a vague sense that it would be challenged on Fourth Amendment grounds…Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        My casual observation is that the government isn’t particularly sensitive to allegations of abusing police powers but it does care about failure of massive infrastructure projects.

        Not many people will avoid a highway for fear of being tracked but lots will if it results in constant tickets. The latter is also more likely to result in continued negative media coverage, the former not so much.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        30+ years ago, when I lived in NJ, the clocks at the NJ Turnpike toll booths were synchronized. When you got on the road you got a little pass. When you left the road, you handed the pass to the toll taker who put it in the machine to determine your miles and then took your money. The machine also calculated your average speed. If it was enough above the limit* there was a NJ state trooper parked a hundred feet past the toll booth who pulled you out of the line and gave you a speeding ticket.

        * Everyone on the Turnpike drove faster than the posted speed limit. People who got tickets were ones who were in “averaged 80 in a 55 zone” territory.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        Eh, you could ditch EZ-Pass anytime you wanted to go back to paying by hand… its a convenience.

        Pandemic app wouldn’t be a convenience, it would be mandatory (to what extent and what repurcussions, TBD).

        I share similar concerns to InMD… if this is just a temporary public civic virtue with the appropriate privacy steps taken… and again, time-bound… then sure we could pitch in. I have my doubts it would be temporary, however… and working in tech/privacy related fields I’m certain it would fail there.

        Other technical concerns would be around false positives and what it means to be “exposed” and how Green/Amber/Red would be calibrated. That is, if you go to the originating article the scenarios are so simple as to be functionally useless in the real world.

        How will it capture and store more than a handshake/proximity notice? Presumably duration is also relevant… so too comparative location such as in a small confined space vs. joggers passing by on a sunny day.

        The paradox, IMO, is that anything that doesn’t already exist and been thoroughly tested vetted will not be something we should introduce or push in the next 6-9 months. Conversely, anything that takes 6-9 months of heavy investment and building will have strong institutional incentives to be adopted no matter what the circumstances may be in 6-9 months.

        TLDR: Don’t believe the hype… the actual implementation of this will be worse than you imagine. Or, in other words, I’m ok building the right sort of emergency Pandemic tracking app that has all the appropriate protections and fail-safes which might be useful for a Pandemic – but it won’t be useful for this one. Put it in the lessons learned category.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Marchmaine
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          says:

          To be honest, in the long run I’m more concerned about the growing ubiquity of networked cameras than I am about my cell phone. If I want to be paranoid, I can pull the battery on my cell phone except when I choose to make a call, or check in on voice/text messages. But if you travel at all, REAL ID means they have a picture of you, and you can’t do anything about the growing number of surveillance cameras. Facial recognition isn’t fully there yet, but gets better every year.Report

          • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            Yeah, I pity whatever outgroup gets ratfucked by the technology we’re developing/have developed. I can only take consolation in the fact that we’ll be 100% onboard with it, and can know they will deserve it. Hopefully I’m in the “we” not “they” category.

            The hard thing to discern, IMO, is whether we’re inching towards a new paradigm and we’ll arrive there with some rules/norms/laws in place to keep some check on everything or whether we ignore all rules/norms/laws and find ourselves at the mercy of a system no one built, yet we’ll find it exists.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Marchmaine
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          says:

          “Eh, you could ditch EZ-Pass anytime you wanted to go back to paying by hand… its a convenience.”

          Not so much. The Metro NYC area is increasingly moving to “cashless” tolling. You need EZPass (or a device from a compatible system) or they photograph your plate and send you a bill in the mail. There is no fine involved, just the bill itself. I don’t know how they enforce this if folks don’t pay. But this seems to be the futureReport

          • Avatar Andrew Donaldson in reply to Kazzy
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            says:

            North Carolina has easy pass for the new toll roads in the RDU area that is pass or mail, and if you don’t pay your fees you cannot renew you plates, and they can suspend your license after a certain time/limit of fees is attained.Report

          • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Kazzy
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            says:

            On the one hand, cool… send me a bill… why do EZ-Pass at all?

            On the other hand, hmmn, why do EZ-Pass at all?

            Now the convenience seems to shift to the State since I’m guessing the License-plate billing is harder and results in a lot more missed tolls.Report

            • Avatar InMD in reply to Marchmaine
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              says:

              I commute on a road like the one Kazzy and Andrew describe. If you only use the road once in a blue moon you can live without EZ pass. If you use the road regularly it becomes a hassle to keep up with. It isn’t like they give you a personal account connected to your plate you can keep up with. You have to go to a state website and match the toll invoice by invoice.Report

              • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to InMD
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                says:

                I have software that can improve that process…

                But yeah, now imagine how a tracking App will work and how you have to manually connect your test to the alerts so that your app doesn’t show Red anymore and you’re allowed to go back to work/ride the subway…Report

              • Avatar InMD in reply to Marchmaine
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                says:

                I suspect anyone who could improve the system in that direction has no interest in doing so.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to InMD
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                says:

                The two toll roads here are the take-a-picture type. They allow you to set up an account and the toll shows up on your credit card. There’s a modest per-event discount if you set up an account.Report

              • Avatar InMD in reply to Michael Cain
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                says:

                That is effectively how EZ pass works. Only difference is you have to put money in the account.
                It can be set to autofill whenever it runs out at a pretty low minimum. The idea is pretty clearly to get everyone on it. East of the Mississippi anyway.Report

              • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to InMD
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                says:

                And in Illinois, all of the tollway information is available to law enforcement and private litigants:

                Ex-boyfriend repeatedly asks police to conduct a wellness check on his ex-girlfriend. Police get tired and recommend she get a TRO against him, which she does. She also changes her cell phone number, e-mail address and license plates.

                Ex-boyfriend files a lawsuit against a third-party and then subpoenas all of the tollway data on his ex-girlfriend. The tollway produces transponder records of all of her movements on the state’s tollways, her new cell phone number, email address, credit card and license plate. He also got the same information about her parents.

                How Your Private Illinois Tollway Data Is Shared With Cops And Divorce Lawyers
                Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Marchmaine
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              says:

              EZ-Pass is incredibly convenient for a number of reasons:
              1) Discounts; this isn’t inherent to the system but many discounts are available.
              2) No fumbling for change. You don’t even really have to think about it. Associate a credit card and even if you “overdraw” your balance, they just replenish in real time.
              3) Faster. It’s fun to zip through the EZPass lane while the cash lanes are backed up.

              Moving to cashless makes a HUGE positive dent in traffic. Toll splits and merges are the worst. A major drawback is you can’t offer targeted discounts, particularly for carpools. To get the carpool discount, you had to go through a staffed booth and let them peep in your car (how closely they peeped really varied). Savings could be as much as 2/3, which is huge when tolls push north of $15 like they do at the GWB. This actually led to a funky “rideshare” system where folks would hang out just ahead of the toll booths and hop in the cars of solo drivers. You’d get 3 people in the car and the passengers got a free trip into the city and the driver saved $10. It would slow them down a bit but it worked. That system is now bunk. Somehow, it never made fodder for a horror film.
              Another weirdness of the carpool system was it counted children, so I got the discount whenever I drove in with the boys. That seems silly since it isn’t like it took cars off the road, but whatevs.Report

              • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Kazzy
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                says:

                Sure… I was an early adopter of EZ-Pass… love it.

                The context here is a Pandemic App will have consequences that go beyond accessing discounts and Quality of Life.

                Or it won’t be much of a pandemic app.

                Plus, the urgency of the mandate will introduce the sort of Data Exposure (outlined by PD below) that we can’t account for in a Pandemic Panic.

                So my position is neutral on the overall concept… but negative on the short term applicability of it.

                If we’re talking about 2021 Apps, I say let the funding roll… and let’s get all the privacy/security requirements defined first.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD
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      says:

      The way these things go, the ability won’t go away, but won’t be used until some chucklehead in some LEA gets a bug up their ass about something crazy stupid (like trying to figure out which boy is having sex with his daughter), and they’ll leverage that dormant system, it’ll make the news, and then the 4A challenges will start.

      Thing is, between Google and Apple, they could do all the tracing automatically in a heartbeat.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        That final reason is why I find it really unlikely the courts are ever going do much about anything beyond maybe the most extreme cases. There’s plenty of precedent from pre-digital life to support a holding that no one has an expectation of privacy in information generated by these devices despite the ubiquity and potential to fulfill the old Stasi’s wildest dreams.

        Any restrictions and oversight will need to come from legislatures and we all know the chances of that happening.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        For the paranoid among us, you can buy a Raspberry Pi and a hat with full cell-phone network connectivity (voice, data, messaging, etc). Your network provider can still track you approximately on a continuous basis if you want to be able to receive incoming data, but you have a guarantee that no Google/Apple apps are running and that nothing is using the GPS to do precision position tracking.

        It’s going to be klutzy and ugly, but so’s a tinfoil hat :^)Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    The people on my side of the political aisle are all for contact tracing and predictably believe that Saint Warren of Arc has a plan for it. I’m not seeing any evidence that American politicians have any plan for Covid-19 contact tracing though even if they are state level politicians that take this seriously. They probably knows that it polls really poorly among Americans and don’t want to do this.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    Giving people smart phones for free would be an effective solution.Report

  5. Avatar Brandon Berg
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    says:

    Isn’t this covered here?

    The authors argue such an app can “achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” and that 60 percent take-up would be enough. That may be, but 100 percent would obviously be better.

    According to this, the US had 77% smartphone penetration in 2018.Report

  6. Avatar Damon
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    says:

    I have a smart phone. It’s so old that many apps I’ve used no longer function. How ya gonna address that? Make everyone have a phone that’s younger than 5 years?

    An I don’t turn on my GPS or Bluetooth functions. Are you going to mandate manufacturers design those features so they cannot be turned off?Report

  7. Avatar Philip H
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    says:

    I don’t know – with a 14% unemployment rate it seems to me we could do a lot of economic good for a number of years by hiring those folks to do tracing work . . . . which would solve the smart phone penetration gap, goose the economy and maybe even allay the libertarian fear of intrusive surveillance (which I”m still hot and bothered about because of the warrantless wiretap fiasco).

    That said I know full well that common sense approaches that actually involve lifting suffering humans up doesn’t poll well with politicians, so I doubt we will do it.Report

  8. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    Heh. Echoes of the conversation that happened back in the Occupy Wall Street days, where “smartphones don’t mean your rich” was commonly heard.Report

  9. Avatar PD Shaw
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    says:

    Currently I think cell phones can be donated and the reason you might want an old phone is access to the emergency calling option. Cell phone companies are required to keep unlocked the emergency call feature, so one doesn’t need to be on a plan. Is a similar fix available? Like keeping bluetooth enabled? This wouldn’t provide a lot of functionality, and at some point if the tech is simply tracking, Disney gives out its magicbands at the parks for free (with admission).Report

  10. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    Color me a skeptic but… are we sure that contract tracing is effective?Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      Depends on next steps.

      Ideally it sparks a workflow to get high value suspects tested ASAP. As described in the article, if your app is “Red” you might be prevented from using public transit or going to certain places – either because you haven’t been tested (yet) or your test is pending or you tested positive.

      Absent the consequences (and the ability to test and have the testing update the app) the App would be mostly worthless…

      Which means… not only do you have to build an app, you have to build a workflow and all the attendant remediation processes for false positives, lost results, bugs, glitches… etc. etc. And it has to work across multiple technologies and multiple testing companies and all the other worldly challenges of locking people out of public spaces/work based upon an App/Workflow.

      Too loosey goosey with no repurcussions and its useless… we’ll all have Amber alerts and no confidence in Reds. Or, no reason to ignore Reds and go about our regular business.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      Currently there is conventional contact tracing happening, and it seems to be good at following the chain of obvious suspects and have them tested. The Governor last week said he was hiring more, and my daughter is looking for a job and thought it sounded interesting (?!?) but there are no jobs posted at least in this area, which probably has enough staff at the county public health department to do this work.

      It seems like the added value of the app would be to identify other potential contacts that people forget, deliberately conceal or have no way of identifying because they contact was minimal. To the extent lies are significant, then the app has to be fraud-proof (btw/ I’ve stopped taking my phone most places anyway), and if the contacts are minimal/forgettable, they may not be that significant. It may be that the added value of the app is (IMHO) like a mask, its more about social trust issues and feeling that people are safe to be around.

      To reduce spread, as opposed to documenting the spread that has already occurred, it seems like testing has to be quick and constant.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to PD Shaw
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        says:

        I guess I have two questions:
        1.) Can we effectively execute contact tracing? Basically, can we execute the plan whatever the plan is.
        2.) Does contact tracing actually help mitigate the virus?

        I haven’t seen much in the way on either question, though I haven’t looked very hard either.Report

  11. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    The technological aspect of combatting Covid-19 is interesting. This is really the first pandemic where public health experts possess the technological capacity to really do what they feel are best practices and create a vaccine/treatment relatively fast. With past pandemics, they could impose limited quarantines, which people tried to break, but nothing on this scale. So I think that a lot of the “we can and will engage in social distancing until a vaccine is developed” thought is driven by what we are technologically capable of and partisan politics.Report

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