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Why is it difficult for citizens to adapt to contact-tracing apps.

Today we will be talking about the following issues: 1. Why it is being difficult for people in many countries to adapt to contact-tracing apps, and 2. Mention to our paper.

The contact-tracing apps are being developed around the world with the idea of simplifying and speeding up the process of detecting new positive cases of COVID-19, and to support manual contact tracing. The goal, to control and end the pandemic.

The mistrust of COVID-19 apps is just part of a normal process of adaptation to a new technology, and this has happened throughout the history of human civilization.

This simple graph was drawn by the eminent physicist Edward Teller in a conversation with Thomas Friedman. It reflects the speed at which human adaptation goes in the face of technological innovation.

Friedman,T. L. (2016) ‘Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations’, Penguin Group, London, p. 32.
Friedman,T. L. (2016) ‘Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations’, Penguin Group, London, p. 32.

To put us in context, thousands of years ago, that curve, representing scientific and technological progress, increased so slowly that it took humanity an average of one hundred years to adapt to it. In other words, life in the 11th century was not very different from that of the 13th century.

This other graph is extremely interesting. It tells us about the evolution of the wealth of countries throughout history. This graph shows us the GDP per capita of four countries plotted against time on a vertical logarithmic scale. Here we see very clearly how life from the 13th to the 18th century did not change much.

The United Kingdom underwent drastic changes due to the increase of its colonies, and Italy was the center of the Catholic Church, which greatly favored its economy.

Sibani & Rasmussen, Human wealth evolution: trends and fluctuations, 2020.
Sibani & Rasmussen, Human wealth evolution: trends and fluctuations, 2020

The conclusion that the authors reach in this paper is that, the growth of wealth is generated fundamentally in COLLABORATION, and not in competition.

Specifically, it is produced by human interactions, and part of the wealth produced is allocated to communication technologies that increase the amount of interactions over time and, therefore, increase HUMAN COOPERATION.

A recent study on mobile phone use as a function of population size supports this theory, since using mobile phone calls as indicators, increasingly frequent human interactions were recently linked to urbanization.

The main finding is that the total number of contacts and total communication activity grows superlinearly with the size of the city’s population, which implies that the larger the community, the greater the number of interactions per capita.

This result suggests that communication intensity and urban size were similarly related in the past.

Since human cultural development and urbanization proceeded in parallel as the size of cities grew over time, the intensity of communication has also grown over time.

If we return to the graph, we see that for 800 years the generation of wealth was generated by the same mechanisms. What circumstances led to this situation? The “special” relationship of individuals with God. The Church had a strong power over the population, and this generated deep patterns of human interaction.

Let us continue with the discussion about the capacity of an entire population to adapt to new technologies. In the year 1900, this process of adaptation began to accelerate, and it took humanity 20 to 30 years to adapt to the changes in science and technology. Humanity’s adaptation to cars or airplanes are two great examples.

Later, the curve started to go straight upwards with the appearance of mobile phones, bandwidth, the cloud, spreading the tools of innovation to millions of people on the planet allowing these changes to take place faster and cheaper.

Today, it takes humanity an average of 7-10 years to adapt to the scientific and technological changes that are making the world a different, more advanced place. Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb, Twitter, Uber, to name a few, are examples of technological innovation. It took humanity an average of 7 years to adapt to these new business models.

What is the problem we have here and now?

The rate of technological change is now accelerating so fast that it has increased above the average rate at which most people can absorb these changes. And this is causing cultural and social distress.

Therefore, without a clear understanding of the future potential of these technologies, and of their future unintended negative consequences, it is (almost) impossible to draft regulations that will promote major advances, while at the same time protecting us from all negative side effects. Simply because we do not know what those negative side effects are.

If we apply this to digital contact-tracing technology, or the contact-tracing app, we have to ask ourselves: If it takes us years to understand a new technology and then to develop new laws to safeguard the rights and interests of a whole society, how can we regulate a new technology that has come so quickly?

Or, more importantly, how are governments going to get their citizens to adapt in two months to a technology that has just appeared, that we do not know the negative side effects of it, that there are no laws to regulate it and protect us from possible discrimination?  

This is the problem, and this is what is producing social angst. But, on the other hand, we have to understand that this is the normal process of adaptation of a society to a new technology. We are asking a lot of our citizens. The current situation is this.

The technologies are going in a direction and at a speed that is totally different from the so-called social technologies, which are the governments, institutions, universities, our culture, the laws, etc. And this gap is widening.


Once we have described the big picture, we will talk about the solutions.

The pandemic appears, and the contact-tracing app is introduced as the technological solution.

What is the objective of Government and citizens? To put an end to the pandemic.

And, the interests that the Government and citizens have, are the same? No, they are not the same. Governments want to achieve a global balance, this is to obtain epidemiological data and to control the pandemic.

And citizens want to achieve a local balance. That is, to feel secure in all scenarios of their lives (family, leisure, social life, work…), and not to be discriminated against in any of them.

How do we manage to find the balance between these two equilibriums?

There is another central question: For the app to be effective in containing the spread it needs to be installed by 60% of the population. *Ferretti, L. et al. “Quantifying SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing”. Science 368, no. 6491 (2020).

The bad news is that in different countries this penetration has not exceeded 25%.

On the other hand, the WHO indicates its fear of discrimination, threats and violence against groups of individuals, or against those who for various reasons cannot use the application.

As Cathy O’Neil indicated, prisoners, the elderly or the homeless will not be visible by the system. Irregular immigrants, who fear deportation, and those who cannot afford to stay home without working, will not do so either. Who, at the same time, are the groups most at risk of being infected.

Furthermore, the app cannot, by itself, indicate how it is used in our workplace, nor whether or not we can be asked for it when we access any physical space.

That is why we need an ethical and social framework in which this technology must be designed and developed. Citizens need to know what their government is doing, and that what it is doing is well done.

The ethical framework puts the citizen in control. How? By knowing that they comply with the legal requirements protecting citizens’ rights and freedoms, and that they adhere to the previously designed ethical framework.

Therefore, the key here is to obtain SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE which, in turn, generates TRUST.

Ricardo Vinuesa, Virginia Dignum, Andreas Theodorous and I prepared a social and technical framework (arXiv preprint arXiv:2005.08370, 2020) aimed at Governments so that the strategy of contact-tracing apps is designed and implemented in compliance with the 19 criteria that we define as indispensable, and so that citizens have the framework of reference and can verify that their Government complies with such indications.

The ethical and social framework is composed of nineteen criteria divided into three main groups: 1. Impact on citizens, 2. Use of technology, and 3. Governace.

These criteria are derived from different regulations and guidance documents and from concerns raised by experts. Each criterion is measured on a scale of 0 to 2.

As an example of the application of this framework, the diagram shows the result of three applications: Stopp Corona (the app developed in Austria), NHS COVID-19 (under development in the UK) and TraceTogether (which has been implemented and used in Singapore since 20 March 2020).

A socio-technical framework for digital contact tracing_Battaglini_Vinuesa_Dignum-Theodorou
A socio-technical framework for digital contact tracing_Battaglini_Vinuesa_Dignum-Theodorou

In addition, we also analyse the guidelines of the European Data Protection Council (EDPB) and assess the extent to which they comply with our framework. We note that all applications have low scores in Governance, and none of them meet criteria 15, 17 and 19, which are, in our view, important areas for any digital contact tracing.

The EDBP guidelines provide a clause to stop the use of these types of applications once the situation returns to “normal”. This can be seen as vague, as “normal” is open to interpretation considering the socio-economic changes brought about by the blockages.

A clearer date would be preferred, unless further action is taken. The PDB Guidelines also require criterion 19, but do not include any requirement with respect to geo-labelling (relevant to criterion 17).

It is also important to highlight the importance of using a decentralised protocol (criterion 7), a feature not shown in the NHS application COVID-19 and not required by the CPD Guidelines, whereas TraceTogether only partially meets this through a mixed centralised/decentralised protocol.

That’s all for today, thanks for reading me.

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