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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Bluetooth and the Virus Dance

Here’s a very long Medium post by Tomas Pueyo, the latest in a series of articles that included the widely circulated The Hammer and the Dance about how to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Most notable is his take on the efficacy of Bluetooth-based phone tracking of the kind Apple and Google are working on:

There is a lot of research that supports the massive difference between an opt-in and an opt-out… For organ donation, the difference is between ~15% and ~99%. For contact tracing, most people wouldn’t opt out either. And if they do, there are plenty of things we could do to push them to opt-in again, such as asking for a new confirmation every few hours, or asking them to navigate to settings every few hours to confirm the opt-out. Every country might not achieve 99% penetration with an opt-out because of politics, but if we want these apps to be useful, this is the only way.

The point that I am trying to make here is that we need a very, very high penetration of these apps for them to matter, and every decision that users make will drop that significantly. But if we achieve it, the prize is amazing.

His argument is that these Bluetooth-based tracking systems will really only be effective in stopping the spread of the disease if they’re pushed out to as many phones as possible and opted in automatically with a very strong warning to anyone who would consider opting out. Otherwise, they won’t be running on enough devices for it to make an effective tool.

Pueyo also suggests that since wireless carriers have access to GPS data (they’ve even been caught selling it!), an effective contact-tracing tool would involve the carriers giving up all that data so that people’s movements can be tracked even more precisely.

Pueyo’s suggestion that we should get over concerns about privacy and get to collecting as much personal tracking data as possible makes me deeply uncomfortable. He writes:

We fear 1984. We want to avoid an AI-driven world where the government knows our every movement, rate us according to our behavior, and soon tell us what to think. We don’t want to be China…. The first way we break it down is realizing that this is not about everybody’s data, but rather that of two small groups: the infected and their contacts….

We should put privacy in context of the other rights we’ve lost. We’ve lost our health. We’ve lost our economy. We have lost our freedom. If we can get them back with a little bit of privacy, are we not going to consider it?

What an unsettling question.

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