The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed from my CV that I studied a master’s in public policy, specialising in digital technologies, not all that long ago. And since then, I have been acutely aware of the tendency of digital technologies to be thrown at problems that have much wider, much more complex, issues at their core. Overweight? Give them a fitness tracker! Workforce required to work at home? Spyware can help you track their every move! Got a pesky issue to solve with border controls? BLOCKCHAIN!
The issue that’s come to the forefront today is the role of contact tracing apps in our exit from Pandemic Times. In the UK, we have had a shoddy track record of almost every aspect of managing this pandemic…from well over 100k deaths, to very questionable procurement of totally unusable PPE, to locking down too late over and over again.
Over the last week, many of us here are struggling to reconcile news that there may be 100k infections a day over the summer whilst we “unlock” completely. This means that - even for those of us who have no pre-existing health concerns, and that are fully vaccinated - we are very likely to have significant disruption brought to our lives, with people we rely on falling sick, maybe getting sick ourselves, our children falling sick - and having to isolate. In the UK, contact tracing has two major routes: the Test and Trace service that physically calls up/contacts people who have been named by positive cases, and the COVID-19 App, which monitors users’ close contact with others on an anonymous basis. If you get “pinged” (as we now seem to be calling it) by either, you will be told to isolate for up to 10 days (depending how speedy the testing process has been for the positive person).
In particular, over the last week, the penny seems to have dropped in relation to the app. An increase in people testing positive means an increase in the likelihood of getting “pinged” by the NHS COVID-19 app in particular, if you’re out and about and getting on with your life (with each positive case seeming to generate 4 or 5 pings on average). This app, which took a while to get off the ground, and has always been eyed with suspicion (despite it working on privacy preserving technology) is now going to be causing problems for a different reason: it’s working as expected.
So, what happened? Did this cause a flurry of concern that people would just stop using it? Well, yes. Did this then cause those determining the policy to rethink why people might stop using it? Well…not really.
People were, I think, happy to use the app whilst there was the mutual understanding that they were doing something for the government/the public, and the government were working to keep them safe with restrictions. But now restrictions are set to end, a number of things are being realised, all of which stem from the use of the app as too fundamental a part of remaining COVID policy. This is what Evgeny Morozov referred to - all the way back in 2013 - as technological solutionism:
Very often self-tracking solutions are marketed as ways to address a problem. You can monitor how many calories you consume; monitor how much electricity you are consuming. It sounds nice in theory but I fear a lot of policymakers prefer to use the self-tracking option as an alternative to regulating…or engaging in more structural reforms…
(This quote taken from here.)
What seems to be happening in the UK is a general unravelling in the trust of this powerful piece of technology - because its correct application is becoming utterly unworkable without ongoing efforts to suppress the virus. People are discovering that moving freely around, when the virus is also moving freely between people, will cause the app to do the job it is supposed to. This means that - as seen in the last week - half a million people got an alert that they should self-isolate.
And many of those people then discovered that there is no legal requirement to isolate if you are told to do so by the app alone (and not a phonecall from Test and Trace). So what, you might ask? Why wouldn’t you self-isolate if you’re told? Isn’t that the point of the app?
Sure, that’s obviously the intention. But, in a society that has opened up, where individuals may be adhering to their moral compass, they might quickly find that adhering to a non-legally binding obligation comes with significant costs. Insurance (travel or otherwise) may not cover the need to cancel or rebook if you are pinged by the app, because it is not legally binding. Similarly, employers cannot access government payment schemes for furlough for workers told to isolate by the app, because it is not legally binding. Adherence to the app may have always been the preserve of those who could afford to install it on a new-enough phone and self-isolate, but now this is playing out on a truly national level.
The app should not be deployed without appropriate policy to ensure people - and those they work for (or with), or care for - are not disadvantaged for following it in the way that they have been told they should. This, of course, echoes the unending calls from groups such as Independent Sage to make meaningful isolation payments so that people are incentivised to do the right thing and stay home when they need to. It also echoes the calls from countless groups representing the vulnerable, parents, carers, those who cannot work from home…children…that you cannot have a functioning society without wide-ranging policy that protects those who cannot protect themselves, or those they have a responsibility to protect. Policy to keep people safe (paid isolation, quick turn around times for test results and functioning track and tracing, mask wearing are the obvious ones), and not just compliant at their own significant expense.
There is just not an app for all of that.