The Good and Bad News of Tracking Apps

The Good and Bad News of Tracking Apps

The Computer Corner

There is good news, and there is bad news. The good news is that Apple and Google are partnering to build a Bluetooth-enabled technology that could give everyone with a smartphone an app that will warn them when they are near someone identified as being infected with a contagious disease. The bad news is that it takes time to develop and deploy new software systems, so it’s not likely that the proposed tracking system will be ready for the current flu season. Plus, there are so many technical obstacles to overcome that it is extremely unlikely any smartphone app using existing technology will ever be reliable.

Bruce Schneier is a respected information technology expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He was quoted in BuzzFeed News, saying, “My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value. I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns—I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful?” He goes on to opine that the very concept of a smartphone app to track pandemics is just “something governments want to do for the hell of it.”

The efficacy of any smartphone app to track communicable infections depends on two things: false positives and false negatives. The false-positive rate is the percentage of sick people encountered that did not result in you being infected. False negatives are the rate at which the app fails to detect that you were close to an infected person.

It is easy to see that someone who is infected could easily create false negatives by “forgetting” to carry their smartphone. The GPS tracking being reported would show that the infected person had never left home, and no one coming into contact with him or her would receive any warning.

False positives could be even worse because it is not realistic to believe that every time someone’s smartphone beeps with a warning, they would immediately run home to shelter in place for two weeks. Most people would not trust a smartphone app to make such a decision for them. What is sure to happen is that people would post their bad experiences on social media; then the ensuing loss of trust would be as bad as having no app at all.

Several countries have already rolled out smartphone tracking apps; in India using its Aarogya Setu app is mandatory starting May 4. Despite the obvious technical and reliability flaws, if a smartphone app serves to encourage a few vulnerable people to get tested when they would not otherwise have done so, then that might be a good outcome. In any case, smartphone tracking is only one of many 21st century tools you will be hearing more about in the future.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email