‘Digital’ contact tracing: How would the US react to coronavirus containment effort that tracks our cell phones?

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Digital contact tracing, already underway through smartphone apps in other countries, could help contain the coronavirus pandemic in the US. Credit: Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix

There’s a reason contact tracing has survived the test of time: it works. Thanks to epic efforts at hunting down people with Covid-19—which, in turn, was in part thanks to widespread testing—South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and India’s Kerala district have emerged as success stories in their battle against a new foe, nipping new infections in the bud and dramatically reducing hospitalizations and deaths.

But here’s the thing: contact tracing has always teetered on the line between individual freedom and the good of the general public; the stigmatization of a viral scarlet letter versus keeping others safe; the price of health data sharing versus societal responsibility.

Related article:  Podcast: Science writer Michael Specter on what you should know about the coronavirus, food security and GMOs

Today, thanks to the mini tracking devices in our pockets called smartphones, it’s easier than ever to bring an effective method for controlling outbreaks into the digital realm. Some epidemiologists even argue that due to the highly infectious nature of SARS-Cov-2, traditional analogue methods are both too dangerous and too slow; digital contact tracing is the only way to go.

If Covid-19 has one silver lining, it’s how on average people in the West are just as willing to sacrifice personal freedoms and adopt strange new customs (face masks everywhere!) to keep themselves and others safe.

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