April 1, 2020


I keep telling people that infection tracking via smartphone (app) is a crackpot idea. But, hey, as Arthur C. Clarke puts it:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Computers are magic for most people, miracle cures are in high demand during any crisis and therefore politicians would like to believe nothing better than the “technology will (somehow) save us” mantra. All will be well if only we had an(y kind of an) app!

Well, there’s Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing for example. It builds on an interesting idea: assign a unique number to every smartphone. Let the smartphone constantly broadcast that number to all other devices in the immediate vicinity via Bluetooth. Once a day, every phone then rings up a central server to ask if any of the numbers, it has “seen” in the past 14 days have been reported as “infected”. If so, the user is prompted to get tested and, in case of a positive result, to report his own number. It’s a nice, privacy aware protocol (no data beyond the number is required and you stay anonymous the whole time), but ultimately useless. Why? Simple: We are past the point of no return at which we could have eradicated the virus through strict quarantine. COVID19 is in the general populace, meaning it will spread till we either develop a vaccine or herd immunity. Eventually we will reach a level of endemic infection at which the next next ping will come shortly after any test we do. In other words, the app would be telling the I should act, at all times, as if I had contracted the virus. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the same thing, we are already suppose to do. The only difference being that we don’t have an app to drive us crazy with suspense at the moment.

Of course, PEPP-PT is not entirely pointless. It may not do much in terms of disease control, but at least, this way, politicians will get a relatively harmless Gris-gris that might keep them from buying from highly questionable firms such as Palantir.