The 21st century ushered in a scintillating side of life that has brought ease, speed and efficiency together in a space called technology. Human dependence on machines to carry out tasks has undoubtedly yielded unprecedented results and spurred imaginable growth in many fields including the health sector.
As the year 2020 appeared with a roar of interesting events, among them the novel coronavirus that has grown beyond borders and shores, wreaking havoc along the way. The world was counting on machines to curtail the outbreak if not to totally quell it in the shortest time.
In the early stage of the disease, scientific laboratories were on the spotlight to find a cure. With the hope and trust of so many people invested, every minute seemed like an hour counting with lambo speed; until the reality shoved up the despair, dividing attention from the search for a cure to the search for the infected.
As people move, the virus follows them to new places where it is equally not wanted; transmitting with such ease that it has become difficult to point at its last stop. And that has been the bane of its containment.
Apple and Google stepped in to help with contact-tracing of those infected via Bluetooth and GPS developed apps. It appeared to be the answer to what has been the most distressing part of the pandemic. The more there is reliable data about the number of people who are infected in a radius, the easier it is to halt the spread.
So when Google announced it is opening its API to the public to enable those interested in developing their own contact-tracing app to develop their own, many countries jumped on it. It’s part of Apple and Google’s effort to help the fight against the virus. The duo was building software into smartphones that will tell people when they come in contact with coronavirus-positive people.
Starting from Singapore, countries joined the race to beat the outbreak using contact-tracing apps. France, the UK, the Netherlands etc. all started to work on their own apps. There was hope it would solve a large part of the problem, though a cure remains a mystery to be unraveled.
The apps are supposed to gather information on the movement of people using it, and if anyone tests positive for COVID-19, the places he went to, the people he met could be easily traced. However, the actualization of the aim depends on the willingness of people to sign up on the apps, but the scare of privacy breach holds many back.
In view of this, Apple, Google and Microsoft are making sure that people’s information is not tampered with. The Care19 app being used in North Dakota uses Wi-Fi, cell towers and GPS to gauge people’s location within about 175 feet, which is more effective than Bluetooth-based tracing apps.
The New York Times analyzed the app and confirmed that it sends people’s location data to a private server hosted on Microsoft cloud platform. The developer said only him and one other person have access to the storage, and health officials can only get the information of people who test positive and agree to share their data.
In another tech development, the quarantine app, used mostly in India to check the movement of people under surveillance and to create virtual parameters for them, has been deployed since April. So is Aarogya Setu (health care bridge), that uses smartphone location data and Bluetooth to log people’s travel routes and the other phones they encounter.
However, the misuse of private data especially by governments has been at the center stage of the concern about the use of these apps. For privately developed apps, there has been a constant battle between the government and the developers for more information from the app. Moreover, the possibility of data error has become part of the concern. The Aarogya Setup app wrongly sent the user’s latitude and longitude to a YouTube server. That heightened the fear of the risk collective surveillance data would pose if mismanaged – a reality no one wants to be caught up in.
There has been a handful of quick inventions aimed at curtailing the virus, doing one thing or the other faster than humans can – from testing tools to ventilators. But on the other hand, the quick-fixes that the available tech tools appear to be offering are far from the solution, and may create problems that will last longer than the pandemic.
While there has been an undeniable contribution of technology to human successes in the fight against coronavirus, the gaps are telling the hurtful truth – technology can’t fix everything!