Aotearoa New Zealand has, for now, eliminated the virus causing COVID-19. It’s eliminated as there is no community infection, and the occasional one that appears is related to a known cluster, where the person involved is already in isolation, or the person has recently returned from overseas and is in a supervised quarantine facility.
One aspect of controlling the virus has been the success of contact tracing, which has improved considerably since the beginning of the outbreak, especially after the process became centralised instead of being the responsibility of each of the nation’s 20 health authorities.
In this this nation, contact tracing has relied on a call centre “interviewing” persons who are confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 and then contacting known or likely contacts. Unlike in Australia, Singapore and Korea, the process has not been automated through the use of technology such as smartphone apps.
There are a number of reasons why we haven’t adopted technology to assist in tracing contacts. The most obvious is privacy. Many of those offering a smartphone solution rely on Bluetooth and the transmission of contact information to a centralised database, both of which pose security and privacy issues. Bluetooth is inherently insecure, and I never have Bluetooth enabled unless I wish to transfer data specifically with another Bluetooth device belonging to someone I know and trust.
As Bluetooth cannot discriminate on the type of proximity to another device (on opposite sides of the same room or right next to each other but in adjascent and isolated rooms for example), most of the “contacts” are irrelevant or red herrings. Bluetooth also requires a high level of trust between devices, and this is not something I’m prepared to give up.
Perhaps automating a contact history might be useful in nations where community transmission of the virus is widespread, provided there is a means of separating the wheat from the chaff that will invariably result by such a collection system. But in the case of Aotearoa New Zealand, where their is no community transmission, any advantage is outweighed by security and privacy concerns.
However, today is the official release of a government approved app that also meets my approval. I downloaded it last night and am comfortable about using it.
The app makes use of QR codes that business establishments can set up at entry points, which you can voluntarily scan as you enter the premises. The data is stored within the phone only and is not transmitted in any form, but can be voluntarily transmitted to contact tracers on request. Data older than 31 days is automatically deleted.
In effect, the app is a personal “places I visited diary”, and as such I am comfortable using it. Unlike almost every other app this one does not need or request access to any smartphone service apart from the camera (to capture the QR code). What it lacks is any means of entering any locations that don’t have a QR code available to scan, and this is a serious weakness in my view.
I had been using my phone’s GPS and the Google Map Timeline to record my movements in case they were needed to trace my movements. But it is very unreliable both in recording where I’ve been and at what time. For example this morning I left home just before 11 AM and visited two locations. I was back home by 11:30.
The Google Maps timeline has no record of me being at the first location, but records me leaving home at 12:06 AM (10 hours and 51 minutes before I actually did), arriving at the second location at exactly the same instant. However, it did accurately record the time I left there, and the time it took to travel home, although it recorded that I arrived at an address three sections (properties/lots) away from home.
Yesterday, it recorded that I visited two places several blocks away, even though I never left home. The last time I visited the supermarket, it recorded the time I spent there as travel time between two other locations I passed by but didn’t stop at. Go figure.
While the typical Kiwi probably trusts our authorities more that the typical American trusts theirs, it’s not unconditional, and I believe the official NZ COVID Tracer does not require much in the way of trust while still being a useful tool in contact tracing if the need arises. I think on that basis, it’s uptake will be greater than if it relied on connectivity and/or external data storage.
One issue is finding the App on Google Play. You can’t. I don’t know what the situation is with Apple’s App Store. Searching for COVID tracers, results in only the official WHO apps being located, even if “NZ” or “New Zealand” is included in the search terms.
It seems that Google is filtering out every tracing app apart from the WHO Apps, probably due to there being a high probability of them being intentionally or unintentionally being open to abuse. Even typing in the app name “NZ COVID Tracer” does not locate it. The only way I could find it was to go to the Ministry of Health NZ COVID Tracer app Webpage and click on the link provided there. Thank you Google (not!)