As the world descended into COVID-19 chaos in the spring of 2020, Apple and Google announced a rare partnership.
The two arch-rivals were collaborating on a plan to transform smartphones into powerful weapons to stop the coronavirus from spreading. Using
wireless signals, a person’s phone would keep track of all the other phones it crossed paths with — if anyone in the chain turned out to be infected, there would be an easy way to find and notify those at risk.
“Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy,” Apple’s CEO Tim Cook wrote in a tweet on April 10, trumpeting the partnership with Sundar Pichai, his counterpart at the helm of Google.
The two tech titans rolled out their “exposure notification” tools in record time. But more than a year since the first apps using Apple and Google’s technology were released, and with a new coronavirus variant on the march, smartphone contact tracing has struggled to live up to its promises and prove its worth in the US.
Only slightly more than half of all US states have even rolled out a contact-tracing app. And an Insider investigation of those apps revealed troubling shortcomings.
Roughly 1 in 4 people activated the tech on their phones, on average, in states where the apps were available. And in those states, an average of just 2% of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 logged the information into the app — significantly limiting the value of the tool.
“Just having the app isn’t going to do anything, if people don’t input results,” said Dr. Isobel Braithwaite, a public health official in the UK who has studied the efficacy of smartphone-based contact-tracing.
The data contrasts with relatively high usage in certain other countries, and highlights yet another area in which America has stumbled in its response to the pandemic. As policy makers, healthcare experts and the public grapple with the latest coronavirus surge, the apps’ poor track record in the US raises important questions about how to effectively implement technology in the fight…