Pandemic tech overlooked public well being consultants. Here’s why that should change.


Susan Landau, a Tufts University professor in cybersecurity and pc science, is the writer of People Count, a guide on how and why contact tracing apps have been constructed. She additionally printed an essay in Science final week arguing that new expertise to help public well being ought to be completely vetted for ways in which it would add to unfairness and inequities already embedded in society.

“The pandemic will not be the last humans face,” Landau writes, calling for societies to “use and build tools and supporting health care policy” that may defend individuals’s rights, well being, and security and allow higher health-care fairness.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.

What have we realized for the reason that rollout of covid apps, particularly about how they may have labored in a different way or higher? 

The technologists who labored on the apps have been actually cautious about ensuring to speak to epidemiologists. What they in all probability didn’t take into consideration sufficient was: These apps are going to alter who will get notified about being probably uncovered to covid. They are going to alter the supply of [public health] companies. That’s the dialog that didn’t occur.

For instance, if I obtained an publicity notification final 12 months, I’d name my physician, who’d say, “I want you to get tested for covid.” Maybe I’d isolate myself in my bed room, and my husband would deliver me meals. Maybe I wouldn’t go to the grocery store. But aside from that, not a lot would change for me. I don’t drive a bus. I’m not a meals service employee. For these individuals, getting an publicity notification is actually completely different. You must have social companies to assist help them, which is one thing public well being is aware of about. 

Susan Landau


In Switzerland, when you get an publicity notification, and if the state says “Yeah, you need to quarantine,” they’ll ask, “What’s your job? Can you work from home?” And when you say no, the state will are available in with some monetary help to remain dwelling. That’s placing in social infrastructure to help the publicity notification. Most locations didn’t—the US, for instance.

Epidemiologists examine how illness spreads. Public well being [experts] have a look at how we handle individuals, they usually have a distinct position. 

Are there different ways in which the apps might have been designed in a different way? What would have made them extra helpful?

I believe there’s actually an argument for having 10% of the apps truly accumulate location, for use just for medical functions to grasp the unfold of the illness. When I talked to epidemiologists again in May and June 2020, they might say, “But if I can’t tell where it’s spreading, I’m losing what I need to know.” That’s a governance concern by Google and Apple.

There’s additionally the difficulty of how efficacious that is. That ties again in with the fairness concern. I stay in a considerably rural space, and the closest home to me is a number of hundred ft away. I’m not going to get a Bluetooth sign from anyone else’s cellphone that leads to an publicity notification. If my bed room occurs to be proper in opposition to the bed room of the residence subsequent door, I might get a complete bunch of publicity notifications if the particular person subsequent door is unwell—the sign can undergo wooden partitions. 

Why did privateness turn out to be so essential to the designers of contact tracing apps? 

Where you’ve been is actually revelatory as a result of it reveals issues like who you’ve been sleeping with, or whether or not you cease on the bar after work. It reveals whether or not you go to the church on Thursdays at seven however you don’t ever go to the church another time, and it seems Alcoholics Anonymous meets on the church then. For human rights employees and journalists, it’s apparent that monitoring who they’ve been with may be very harmful, as a result of it exposes their sources. But even for the remainder of us, who you spend time with—the proximity of individuals—is a really personal factor.

“The end user is not an engineer… it’s your uncle. It’s your kid sister. And you want to have people who understand how people use things.”

Other international locations use a protocol that features extra location monitoring—Singapore, for instance.

Singapore mentioned, “We’re not going to use your data for other things.” Then they modified it, and they’re using it for law enforcement purposes. And the app, which began out as voluntary, is now wanted to get into workplace buildings, faculties, and so forth. There is not any selection however for the federal government to know who you’re spending time with. 

I’m interested in your ideas on some greater classes for constructing public expertise in a disaster.

I work in cybersecurity, and in that area it took us a extremely very long time to grasp that there’s a consumer on the different finish, and the consumer is just not an engineer sitting at Sun Microsystems or Google within the safety group. It’s your uncle. It’s your child sister. And you need to have individuals who perceive how individuals use issues. But it’s not one thing that engineers are skilled to do—it’s one thing that the general public well being individuals or the social scientists do, and people individuals should be an integral a part of the answer. 

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