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A Deep Dive On Digital Contact Tracing For COVID-19




A Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrates Singapore's new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore on March 20, 2020.
A Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrates Singapore's new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore on March 20, 2020.
CATHERINE LAI/AFP via Getty Images

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You’ve probably heard or read the term “contact tracing” since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and maybe you’ve found yourself wondering exactly what it is.

The process is one that has been employed by medical professionals and public health experts for about as long as society has tracked the spread of contagious diseases. It’s basically medical detective work -- starting with someone who has tested positively for a disease -- in this case, COVID-19 -- contact tracers will work backwards to determine who that person has been in contact with in the hope of figuring out who they infected and also how that person became infected his or herself. From there, they can not only urge the infected person to quarantine or seek treatment, but also continue tracing people’s contacts to create a network of people who might be infected or have come in contact with someone who was. The challenge, however, can be getting people who test positive to recall everyone they might have breathed within six feet of over the previous week. And that’s where contact tracing goes digital.

Governments and tech firms have been working since the start of the pandemic to develop technology that could use smartphone technology to determine when someone has come in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The most widely-considered model employs Bluetooth, which has a shorter range than Wi-Fi or cell signals. Someone who tests positive for the virus could notify an app on their phone, which would then notify the people whose phones had been within range of the infected person’s. Google and Apple are also working on technology that would run in the background on a user’s phone and not require an app to be downloaded, and they say their decentralized method doesn’t track your location and wouldn’t collect data that could be used to identify the user. But, as with any large digital tracking effort, privacy and civil liberties concerns abound with regard to what kind of information the app is collecting, who can access it, where it goes, and what kind of protections are built in to ensure that hackers and other bad actors can’t get ahold of people’s personal and private information.

Today on AirTalk, we’ll take an in-depth look at what contact tracing is, the process of taking it digital and how those apps would work, plus we’ll hear from cybersecurity and technology experts who will explain the pros and cons of digital contact tracing.

Guests:

Karin Michels, epidemiologist; chair and professor of the Department of Epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health

Andy Greenberg, senior writer for WIRED covering security, privacy, information freedom and hacker culture; his latest reporting at WIRED.com is “Does COVID-19 contact tracing pose a privacy risk? Your questions, answered”; he tweets @a_greenberg

Stewart Baker, partner at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson in Washington D.C. where he manages the firm’s technology law practice; he was the Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2005-2009 and general counsel to the National Security Agency from 1992-1994

Ashkan Soltani, independent researcher and technologist specializing in privacy, security, and behavioral economics; he is a member of the advisory board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the architects of the California Consumer Privacy Act, a former senior advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and a former chief technologist for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission; he tweets @ashk4n