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The world takes a step forward with contact tracing

April 27 · Issue #499 · View online
The Interface
On Monday the six Bay Area counties announced that they would extend stay-at-home orders through May, citing ongoing difficulties in preparing for future spikes in new cases. A prominent question as elected officials attempt to govern through the next several months is to what extent they will rely on technology solutions to help them identify possible infections. Over the weekend, we saw a variety of ideas on this subject begin to play out around the world.
First, Apple and Google announced some changes to their collaboration on a system-level API for public health authorities, which will use people’s smartphones to inform them when they have been in the presence of someone who is later diagnosed with COVID-19. The changes are largely meant to address privacy concerns, but to me they’re most notable for a change in terminology. Instead of “contact tracing,” the companies are now referring to their project as an “exposure notification” system. I had previously argued here that Bluetooth-based solutions were unlikely to be effective for real contact tracing, which requires human beings to track down leads. But “exposure notification” seems like something these companies are well suited to do, and I’m glad they’re now thinking about it in those terms.
One country that has been persuaded of the companies’ approach is famously privacy-conscious Germany. Germans were instrumental in devising the (tongue twister alert) Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing project, an effort to do exposure notification in a way that protected citizens from their governments. But the project would have required operating system-level changes to Apple’s iOS by making Bluetooth available to public-health apps that sought to process exposure notifications on a central server controlled by the government.
For privacy reasons, Apple said no, and now Germany has signed on with Apple’s system. Here are Douglas Busvine and Andreas Rinke in Reuters:
Germany changed course on Sunday over which type of smartphone technology it wanted to use to trace coronavirus infections, backing an approach supported by Apple and Google along with a growing number of other European countries. […]
Germany as recently as Friday backed a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which would have needed Apple in particular to change the settings on its iPhones. When Apple refused to budge there was no alternative but to change course, said a senior government source.
(As an aside, the idea that we live in a time where Apple is telling Europe what forms of exposure notification will be permitted is basically the entire thesis behind / pitch for the existence of this newsletter. Not because I believe Apple abused its power, but because the world is still catching up to the idea that Apple and a handful other tech giants have this power.)
England, on the other hand, has said to hell with it. The country’s National Health Service is developing its own contact-tracing app that it says will work even when it is in the background and the screen is off, a limitation that has stymied other such apps. The reason it is developing its own app is so that it can process exposure notifications on its own server — the thing that Apple declined to implement for Germany at the operating system level. Here’s Leo Kellion reporting for the BBC:
“Engineers have met several core challenges for the app to meet public health needs and support detection of contact events sufficiently well, including when the app is in the background, without excessively affecting battery life,” said a spokeswoman for NHSX, the health service’s digital innovation unit. […]
It has opted for a “centralised model” to achieve this - meaning that the matching process, which works out which phones to send alerts to - happens on a computer server. This contrasts with Apple and Google’s “decentralised” approach - where the matches take place on users’ handsets.
The NHS says it will be easier to notify people believed to be infected using a centralized approach. We’ll see! Meanwhile, Australia says 1 million people have downloaded its own contact-tracing app, COVIDSafe, which also uses a centralized approach. The app is based on Singapore’s open-source TraceTogether app, whose effectiveness at exposure notification is somewhat under dispute. (Not least because only a small minority of the population is using it.)
Western approaches to exposure notification continue to be rooted in privacy fears, but that’s not the case everywhere. Last month, Israel’s internal service, the Shin Bet, was granted emergency powers to track confirmed cases of COVID-19 and analyze patients’ movements to aid in contact tracing. It reportedly marked the first time Israel had used technology built for counterterrorism purposes for civilian uses.
But Israelis have their privacy sensitivities, too. On Sunday, Israel’s top court ruled that if the Shin Bet wishes to continue the practice, it will need to be explicitly permitted in legislation.
It was a weirdly rare reminder that, while so much of the pandemic response has focused on technology — on testing and tracing — lawmakers have a role to play, too.

The Ratio
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬆️ Trending up: WhatsApp has drastically lowered the number of viral forwarded messages on the platform. Earlier this month, the company limited the number of people a viral message could be forwarded to to just one, and now it says viral forwards are down 70 percent. (Neha Alawadhi / Business Standard)
Amazon is asking warehouse employees who have stayed away from work during the pandemic to return for scheduled shifts beginning May 1st, or request a leave of absence. The company offered unpaid time off without penalty for workers uncomfortable with coming in, but it only runs through April. Here’s Matt Day at Bloomberg:
The largest online retailer has been scrambling to deal with a surge in orders that arrived just as outbreaks of COVID-19 began to hit its own ranks. Some workers have said Amazon wasn’t doing enough to keep them safe, cries that led to walkouts and protests rarely seen in Amazon’s workforce. Amazon stepped up the cleaning of its facilities and forced workers to keep their distance from one another.
But many employees at warehouses across the U.S. stayed home, either out of fear of catching or spreading the disease, or to care for children unable to attend school. Some had hoped to continue to stay away until the pandemic recedes and businesses reopen.
Amazon reportedly reinstated a warehouse worker who says she was fired after she stayed home to protect her kids from COVID-19. The company relented after roughly 50 employees went on strike. Amazon suggested the report contained misinformation without elaborating. (Lauren Kaori Gurley / Vice)
Amazon is piloting the use of video conference calls to verify the identity of new merchants who want to sell goods on the platform. It’s part of the company’s plan to counter fraud without in-person meetings in the pandemic. (Reuters)
Amazon is strengthening its position in the retail market in ways that could outlast the pandemic and raise antitrust concerns. Increasingly, manufacturers of in-demand products are catering to Amazon, while competing retailers take the leftovers. (Renee Dudley / ProPublica)
A French court rejected Amazon’s appeal against a ruling that restricts what it can deliver during the coronavirus crisis. The news marks a victory for unions that had criticized the company’s safety measures. (Mathieu Rosemain and Sarah White / Reuters)
Bill Gates saw the coronavirus coming. Here’s his plan to beat it. (Ezra Klein / Vox)
Instacart has turned profitable for the first time ever, thanks to skyrocketing sales. Demand for grocery deliveries is skyrocketing during the coronavirus pandemic. (Amir Efrati / The Information)
Instacart plans to add 250,000 new workers. It’s also extending the sick pay period for shoppers with COVID-19, and introducing new safety measures for workers, including an in-app wellness check. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)
Trolls and bots are flooding social media with disinformation encouraging states to end the quarantine. The bots have helped stoke protests calling on government officials to let people go back to work, despite the ongoing health risks. (Thor Benson / Business Insider)
While most people in the US are waiting for antibody tests to become available, some wealthy and well-connected individuals are already getting access to them. The vast majority of these tests been vetted by the Food and Drug Administration and are not guaranteed to be accurate. (Emily Mullin / OneZero)
Doctors are becoming social media influencers as people struggle to find accurate information about the pandemic. But online fame comes with risks that are only heightened by the importance of their job. (Abby Ohlheiser / MIT Technology Review)
Influencers are offering free money to followers as the pandemic continues to disrupt peoples’ livelihoods. While influencers typically frame the move as charity, it’s also a a savvy growth strategy. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
Food delivery by robot is surging during the pandemic. It could accelerate a shift away from human delivery workers. (Timothy B. Lee / Ars Technica)
Lockdown measures have stopped many protesters from going outside. So they’re getting creative online. (Christopher Miller / BuzzFeed)
DJs are live streaming sets to big online audiences as the coronavirus pandemic keeps people trapped indoors. But few artists are actually getting paid. (Shawn Reynaldo / Pitchfork)
Virus tracker
Total cases in the US: At least 977,256
Total deaths in the US: More than 50,000
Reported cases in California: 43,787
Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 553,409
Reported cases in New York: 292,027
Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 826,095
Reported cases in New Jersey: 111,188
Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 227,775
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 54,938
Total test results (positive and negative) in Massachusetts: 244,887
Nearly two years since the General Data Protection Regulation was passed in Europe, it’s still struggling to fulfill its promise. The privacy law was heralded as a model to crack down on the invasive, data-hungry practices of Big Tech. Adam Satariano at The New York Times has the story:
But since the law was enacted, in May 2018, Google has been the only giant tech company to be penalized — a fine of 50 million euros, worth roughly $54 million today, or about one-tenth of what Google generates in sales each day. No major fines or penalties have been announced against Facebook, Amazon or Twitter.
The inaction is creating tension within European governments, as some leaders call for speedier enforcement and broader changes. Privacy groups and smaller tech companies complain that companies like Facebook and Google are avoiding tough oversight. At the same time, the public’s experience with the G.D.P.R. has been a frustrating number of pop-up consent windows to click through when visiting a website.
President Trump retweeted a gif of Joe Biden with his tongue out. On Twitter, people tried to claim this was a “deepfake.” It’s not, and the distinction matters. (Samantha Cole / Vice)
A young mechanic at a Honda dealership in Indiana was fired from her job after management learned she was making amateur porn on OnlyFans outside of work. Her boss said the account “might encourage [her coworkers] to approach you with unwanted sexual conduct or comments.” (Otillia Steadman / BuzzFeed)
Twitter turned off its original SMS service in most countries. The change marks the end of an era for Twitter: when the service launched, it was built around SMS. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)
Inside Magic Leap’s bait and switch. The VR company raised $2.6 billion dollars, then laid off half its employees, while hardly releasing anything at all in seven years. (Jon Evans / TechCrunch)
Things to Do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Find a COVID-19 test year you. AllClear is a new open-source project that claims to have the most comprehensive listing of testing sites in the United States — more than 9,000 so far.
Remix these public domain audio clips. The Library of Congress is begging you to!
Those good tweets
Sarah Marshall
zoom calls are exhausting because actually listening takes half the energy of performing the act of listening
Casey Newton
What’s something you’re proud of about this quarantine? For me it’s that I never finished The Irishman
Chaz Hutton
Thought I’d draw a more accurate calendar for 2020 so far....
And finally ...
Christopher Mele has a tale of what not to do at work during quarantine:
The cat meowed loudly again. “OK, first, I’d like to introduce my cat,” Mr. Platzer said, lifting it close to the camera and then, with two hands, tossing it off screen.
The cat squeaked as it was being thrown, and a thud could be heard.
Please do not throw your cats off screen when you are on Zoom! Honestly it was the only part of your appearance on Zoom that any of us were looking forward to.
Talk to us
Send us tips, comments, questions, and fan fiction about tech giants declaring themselves to be nation states: and
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