Following my security audit of the COVID Alert SA app with the White Noise Podcast, I was invited by Joe Emilio to talk to him about the need for a South African contact tracing app and whether I think this app has been successful in curbing the spread of COVID-19.
Other countries like Australia had a contact tracing app as early as April when the pandemic was in full swing. The fact that South Africa only had this solution ready in September means that the tide of COVID-19 had already passed. Also, why are we still doing contact tracing when the curve has already been flattened?
Apps for contact tracing
Initially, countries and territories around the world tried to create their own contact tracing apps from scratch. With the introduction of the Exposure Notifications (GAEN) framework by Google and Apple in April 2020 official governmental apps could be built on top of this. The framework handles all the communications between devices and with the contact tracing server. This meant only sanctioned entities could now create apps that were allowed access to the framework.
The general consensus is that contact tracing apps need about a 60% uptake to be effective. In highly compliant countries like Ireland and Switzerland, uptake was only 40% and 35% respectively.
Another barrier to entry in South Africa is that only a third of the population has access to a smartphone. Any device running a version of iOS earlier than 13.5 or Android earlier than version 6 (Marshmallow) will lack the necessary software updates developed by Apple and Google to allow it to carry out Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ with other smartphones.
What methods did other countries employ?
Oppressive regimes like China went with all-out to monitor the spread of the virus using cellphone tracking, CCTV surveillance and credit card tracking.
In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) launched an official NHS COVID-19 app. Users had to scan QR codes to gain access to public locations.
As for the United States, having a more localised approach to healthcare, as of October 2020, there were only 11 states and territories that had adopted a unified app to combat the pandemic.
Australia was one of the early adopters, as mentioned previously who had a functioning app in April 2020 already.
The effectiveness of indoor tracing
Computer scientists at the Trinity College in Dublin ran a study in June 2020. In two separate studies on a commuter bus and a tram, they found that the GAEN (Google/Apple Exposure Notifications) framework reported false positives or did not trigger alerts when they should have.
This is due to the metal-rich environment in these spaces where radio waves will be reflected instead of absorbed. This brings into question the effectivity of contact tracing apps in dense indoor public transport spaces. In a country like South Africa, the same could be argued for public transport such modes such as as minibus taxis.
COVID-19 Alert SA app
According to Norton Rose Fullbright, The University of Capt Town (UCT) and the Government were reportedly working on an app called COVI-ID already in May 2020. The app was canned and Discovery took over the development. The app was then white labelled for the Department of Health and released as version 1.2.2 for Android and v1.3 for iOS in September 2020.
Since the podcast talk, a new version of the app has been released.
Version 1.4.0-gms (Android) includes a forgot PIN feature and some bug fixes and enhancements as well as version 1.4.0 on the Apple iOS store.
It is clear that the time to market was far too long for the COVID-19 Alert SA app to be effective. With the curve flattened the introduction of the app was too late to catch the bulk of the peak pandemic infections. It also begs the question of whether a smartphone app is a viable strategy in a country with limited smartphone penetration. A lot of the population also relies on the use of public transport and the Irish study has shown contact tracing apps to be ineffective in these scenarios.
Live chat on the Joe Emilio Show
A comedy of errors: the UK’s contact-tracing apps. https://www.medicaldevice-network.com/features/uk-contact-tracing-app-problems/
COVIDSafe App Teardown & Panel. Discussion. https://www.troyhunt.com/covidsafe-app-teardown-panel-discussion/
Why Contact-Tracing Apps Haven’t Slowed Covid-19 in the US. https://www.wired.com/story/why-contact-tracing-apps-not-slowed-covid-us/
Which U.S. states are using Apple’s Exposure Notification API for COVID-19 contact tracing? https://9to5mac.com/2020/10/01/covid-19-exposure-notification-api-states/
Leith, DJ. Farrell, S (2020). Measurement-Based Evaluation Of Google/Apple Exposure Notification API For Proximity Detection In A Commuter Bus. SCSS Tech Report 15th June 2020. https://www.scss.tcd.ie/Doug.Leith/pubs/bus.pdf
Contact tracing apps: A new world for data privacy. https://www.nortonrosefulbright.com/en-za/knowledge/publications/d7a9a296/contact-tracing-apps-a-new-world-for-data-privacy#South%20Africa