As we begin this bleak pandemic winter facing unfathomable levels of illness and death, here’s a simple warning: Beware of geeks bearing gifts.
Silicon Valley keeps promising that they have the solution to our COVID-19 nightmare, and politicians keep buying. But nine months into this pandemic, their convoluted apps keep proving to be dangerous distractions—wasting time, wasting money, and maybe even getting people killed.
New products claim to do everything from optimizing vaccine distribution to tracing infections to monitoring who has immunity, as tech firms have worked to insert themselves into every facet of the public health fight. But the reality keeps falling short of the sales pitch, and recent debacles with vaccine priority algorithms and contact tracing apps are a warning for what’s coming next as the tech firms are just getting started. With this godsend of a vaccine comes a renewed push for immunity passports, an unproven technology with a racist history that deserves no place in 21st century health care, and a new wave of surveillance tools to monitor our health data.
The most recent warning about the deadly risks of relying on technology to navigate this pandemic came from the heart of the Silicon Valley: Stanford. Unsparingly, this high-tech innovation hub turned to artificial intelligence to solve the ethical dilemma of how to prioritize vaccine distribution. But this “algorithmically” optimized approach failed more spectacularly than any human ranking could, as the A.I prioritized senior officials who were working remotely while almost completely excluding the resident physicians who have been treating patients on the front line. The result was outrage, blood boiling outrage, as residents rallied against administration officials, chanting slogans like “fuck the algorithm.”
Many of those promoting public health technosolutionism are well intentioned, but a few have less charitable motives. For startup surveillance firms and military contractors alike, COVID-19 tracking is big business.
Apple and Google appear genuine in their desire to leverage their devices for public health, though perhaps tinged by a desire for good PR at a time when the companies face historic scrutiny. But their technology is flawed. Like so many of these firms, Google and Apple built their Bluetooth API without first asking public health officials or the public a crucial question: Is this something we want?
For public health officials, the answer is mixed. Some agree that the technology could, theoretically, dampen the spread of COVID-19. But for the public, the answer is much more muddled. Yes, some people have been willing to download the app, but the vast majority have refused, and a clear majority says that they never will.
But lack of usage is just one problem. Even when countries make these apps compulsory, they fail to live up to the hype. That’s because cellphones were never designed to carry out this task. In fact, none of the fancy new tools being marketed for contact tracing are.
All of the apps, and wearables, badges and other devices try to use some mix of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, QR codes, or cellphone tower data to compile a list of who you might have exposed. Trouble is that these technologies were never actually designed to provide a reliable distance measure. GPS, which is used by many contact tracing apps, is often wrong by 22 to 42 feet, sometimes even more in urban environments. Twenty feet may not be a big deal when your GPS is telling you where to turn, but it’s more than three times the distance we’re measuring for with COVID-19 exposure. Bluetooth can be less error-prone, but it’s hardly reliable. Choices like holding your phone rather than putting it in your pocket or purse can dramatically throw off the perceived distance. Differences in phone model, battery level, and operating system will all lead to potential false positives or false negatives.
But the technological nightmare will only get worse. With the remarkable roll-out of lifesaving vaccines comes a renewed push for vaccine passports, something we’ve had before. In the antebellum South, these papers were just another dehumanizing pricing factor for enslaved people on the auction block. Slave owners would infect enslaved Blacks with Yellow Fever to show that they were immune from re-infection, uncaring about the risk that they might die. Meantime, many white workers infected themselves, themselves, fearful that they couldn’t get hired without proof of immunity.
As we see months-long delays in vaccine administration along with contested claims that those with antibodies from past exposure to COVID-19 are “immune,” we will see a dangerous incentive for people to purposefully get sick with the virus to use new, updated vaccination passports.
Even worse, as with contact tracing, surveillance vendors are quick to insist on expensive, high-tech “solutions.” Even though we’ve used low-tech vaccine records for decades when people travel internationally, these vendors want more. Instead, they want apps that can scan our health data throughout the day, making our access to our jobs, our schools, and even our grocery stores dependent on using the apps.
The truth is that the most crucial part of this roll-out isn’t tracking or technology, it’s trust. We need hundreds of millions of Americans to trust in the vaccination effort, to take part in protecting themselves, their communities, and their families. Alarmingly, today, only 63 percent of Americans say they would be willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, far less than what’s needed to achieve herd immunity. That’s because we need 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans vaccinated to get there, and many Americans—children under 16, pregnant and nursing mothers, and those with severe allergies—aren’t yet able to get the vaccine. Rather than investing millions in new tracking tools, we need to prioritize the community education and engagement to build both trust and equity.
Silicon Valley has given us a lot of great innovations over the years, but there are some things that you just don’t want to “disrupt”, and public health is just one of them. Rather that claiming to have the solution, these wealthy firms should simply be supporting public health outreach by giving the one thing that they have that we truly need: money.