Covid-19 Digital Contact Tracing in the U.S.

For many countries including the U.S., it's of uttermost importance to be able to re-open the society and the economy as soon as possible. The U.S. government has therefore presented guidelines to Opening Up America Again. These contain, as we've...

For many countries including the U.S., it’s of uttermost importance to be able to re-open the society and the economy as soon as possible. The U.S. government has therefore presented guidelines to Opening Up America Again. These contain, as we’ve written about earlier, the ability to perform large-scale, easily accessible and fast Covid-19 tests. Another important aspect of the guidelines is contact tracing. WHO describe contact tracing as “an essential public health tool for controlling infectious disease outbreaks” since it can, when systematically applied, “break the chains of transmission of an infectious disease”. Since it’s a time consuming task many, including the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suggest using digital solutions as a complement to the manual work performed by public health staff.

“A contact tracing and warning app is voluntarily installed and used to warn users if they have been in proximity for a certain duration to a person who reported to have been tested positive of COVID-19. In case of an alert, the app may provide relevant information from health authorities such as advice to get tested or to self-isolate, and who to a contact.”

The European Comission’s description of a contact tracing and warning app and its use.

In the wake of Covid-19 we see a rise of the abovementioned digital solutions to mitigate the spread of the virus. It can be in the form of apps to monitor those in self-quarantine to make sure they stay in designated locations like in South Korea, or the COVID Symptom Tracker app that was recently launched in Sweden by researchers at Lund University. It’s cause for collaboration all over the world, as an example the European Union have developed an EU toolbox for safe and efficient mobile tracing apps across the EU.

By Tim Dennell,; CC BY-NC 2.0,

In the U.S., such collaborations have not yet been implemented. It is up to each state to develop their contact tracing apps, and there is little consensus between them. A few states have already started using apps, but it seems hard getting citizens to download them.

However, the American companies Google and Apple have teamed up to enable privacy-protecting contact tracing. Their solution is based on Bluetooth and is a so-called decentralised solution. This means that the tracing takes place between the users’ devices and it’s not possible for the authorities to be able to see who got an alert (advising them to get tested or go into self-isolation, see video below for more information) unless a user decides to disclose the fact. The opposite, a centralised solution, would enable authorities to get more insight into the number of alerts being sent out and potentially being able to identify the person behind the alert.

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern explains the Technologies behind Contact tracing apps using an 8-bit video game.

Another U.S. company, the American healthcare software company Epic, have presented their work with an “immunity passport” app that is supposed to be able to be used as a “proof” that you’re not currently sick in Covid-19. This system could potetially increase people’s liberties without infringing on others’ rights. However, this initiative is put on hold due to people finding it potentially invasive in their private life.

Yes – digital tracing apps can actually be quite controversial and not at all problem-free. Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus we can se an overall increase in surveillance by states, and the digital tracing apps risk to intensify this even more. MIT Technology Review has therefore launched a Covid Tracer Tracker Project in order to document the different tracing apps. They want to follow the apps’ impact on the society by keeping track of how many people that download and use the app, what data it collects and who it’s shared with, how that information will be used in the future and if there are any policies in place to prevent abuse.

It is hard to know which approach is the best, but we will follow the development of the covid digital contact tracing and hopefully see a result from it when the U.S. now starts to open up.

Nora Myrne Widfors
Intern at the Office of Science and Innovation in Washington D.C.