Podcast: Who watches the pandemic watchers? We do

Deep Tech is a new subscriber-only podcast that brings alive the people and ideas our editors and reporters are thinking about. Episodes are released every two weeks. We’re making this episode—like much of the rest of our coronavirus coverage—free to everyone.

No sooner had the stay-at-home orders come down than mobile app developers around the world began to imagine how our smartphones could make it safer for everyone to venture back out. Dozens of countries and a handful of US states are now urging citizens to download government-blessed apps that use GPS-based location tracking, the Bluetooth wireless standard, or a combination of both to alert us when we’ve crossed paths with an infected individual—information that could tell us when we need to self-isolate for the protection of others. 

But who controls this data, and what kinds of privacy protections are built in? To get a handle on how different apps work, three MIT Technology Review journalists built the Covid-19 Tracing Tracker, a public database that rates tracing apps according to principles devised by the American Civil Liberties Union and similar organizations. They say they’re learning that not all tracing apps are the same, and that in the end, it may be Google and Apple, not governments, that wind up imposing key privacy protections.

Show Notes and Links

Why contact tracing may be a mess in America, May 16, 2020

Nearly 40% of Icelanders are using a covid app—and it hasn’t helped much, May 11, 2020

A flood of coronavirus apps are tracking us. Now it’s time to keep track of them. May 7, 2020

India is forcing people to use its covid app, unlike any other democracy, May 7, 2020

Full Episode Transcript

Wade Roush: Can our smartphones help to slow the spread of the coronavirus? Well, software developers think so. Each of us would just have to download an app that could alert us if we come into contact with a known carrier of the virus. There’s real promise that these apps could help end the lockdown phase of the pandemic. But to really be effective, these apps would need to be approved by local public health agencies, and tied into aggressive manual contact tracing efforts. 

Bobbie Johnson: And so while hundreds and thousands of technologists all sprung out of their chairs and started working furiously on automated tracing apps and protocols as soon as they could, if they don’t match up with what a government is doing, then the efficacy of them is going to be very small.

Wade Roush: Bobbie Johnson is a senior editor at Technology Review, and he joined with two colleagues to build a new public database that shows which coronavirus tracing apps have state or national backing. We’ll hear what they’re learning about those apps, what contact tracing technology could mean for our privacy, and why the only two organizations that can sort out the mess of competing apps may be Google and Apple.

I’m Wade Roush, and this is Deep Tech.

[Deep Tech theme]

Narendra Modi: [translated from Hindi] Fourth thing – Download the Aarogya Setu Mobile App to help prevent the spread of corona infection.

Wade Roush: That’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging all Indians to download a mobile app called Aarogya Setu, which translates to “Bridge for Freedom from Disease.”

The app uses location tracking and the Bluetooth wireless standard to detect whether a smartphone user has come within six feet of an infected person,

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