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Why coronavirus contact-tracing apps haven’t been a ‘game changer’

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Germany’s coronavirus contact-tracing app, Corona-Warn, is displayed on an iPhone in Berlin on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

Krisztian Bocsi | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Coronavirus contact-tracing apps were meant to play a significant role in how some countries dealt with the spread of the disease. But so far, they’ve had a limited impact.

The apps alert people who come into close proximity with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, the idea being that the “contacts” of that sufferer would then get tested and self-isolate.

They were once heralded as a crucial part of some countries’ plans to lift their lockdown restrictions. In the U.K., for instance, this type of app was regularly referred to in the daily coronavirus briefings, however now the government is playing down its significance.

Many of these apps rely on Bluetooth technology to send out notifications when two smartphone owners approach each other. Some of them even track location data through GPS. But early in the development of such platforms, campaigners flagged major concerns over how they would approach privacy.

Enter Apple and Google. In April, the companies set out to introduce a “decentralized” framework for contact-tracing apps that would aim to both protect user data and ensure they still work once people start traveling abroad. While Apple is often praised for taking user privacy seriously, Google has been a particular target for criticism over tech platforms’ shortcomings on data protection. All of a sudden, it was winning plaudits for an apparent commitment to ensuring privacy by design.

“They certainly created a system which can be used for proximity tracing without risking trust from centralization of personal data,” Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at University College London, told CNBC.

Veale is part of a team of researchers who came up with a system known as DP-3T, or Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing. It’s the protocol on which Apple and Google based their own contact-tracing model.

“Whether any of these apps are useful to fight the virus on the ground is yet to be seen,” said Veale, though he added it was “too early” to rule them out.

Not a ‘game changer’

In May, a report said Iceland had achieved the largest penetration of any virus-tracking app, with 38% of its 364,000 inhabitants installing it. But the Iceland app, which collected people’s GPS data, “wasn’t a game changer,” according to Gestur Pálmason, the deputy chief inspector of Iceland’s Covid-19 tracing team. Oxford University researchers have said 60% of a country’s population would have to download a tracing app in order for it to be effective.

“There isn’t a single country in the world to date that would be able to point to an app and say: ‘That was a game changer,'” Stephanie Hare, an independent technology researcher, told CNBC.

Singapore, which was seen as a pioneer in the development of tracing technology, has seen about 2.1 million downloads of its app. This translates to about 37% of the country’s population — still well below the recommended 60% threshold. And although digital tracking measures seem to have helped in countries like China and South Korea, critics say that these technologies came at the expense of privacy.

In Norway, health authorities were forced to pull their contact-tracing app after a warning from the data protection regulators. The Scandinavian country’s app was ranked alongside Bahrain’s and Kuwait’s on Amnesty International’s list of the “most alarming mass surveillance tools” used to track the virus. It used location data as well as Bluetooth, and processed proximity data centrally rather than on individual smartphones.

“It’s very much being pitched as: you either care about human life or you care about privacy,” Raha Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty International’s technology division, told CNBC. “You can absolutely still have a useful contact tracing app that does give respect to people’s human rights and privacy.”

France launched a tracing app that used Bluetooth to find the contacts of coronavirus patients. But like Norway, the app didn’t adopt Apple and Google’s model. That may have been to the detriment of its success, as just 14 people of the 1.9 million who downloaded the app received notifications to say that they’d been exposed to someone who was coronavirus-positive. Like the U.K., France had also touted the app as a key part of the country’s strategy to slow the spread of the virus.

Apple and Google set the standards

The U.K. has now backpedalled and said it will apply Apple and Google’s technology to its app. The government wanted to push ahead with a centralized model that stored data on a central database, but discovered the app was far less effective on iPhones than Android devices due to privacy measures imposed by Apple’s operating system. The only alternative was to succumb to the tech giants’ approach.

“You have a strange situation where they’re dictating the kind of privacy measures that need to be in place for contact tracing,” Amnesty’s Abdul Rahim said of Apple and Google. “It’s an interesting dynamic because it shows you the power of the tech giants, that ultimately we’re having to rely on their good will to put in place security-protecting measures.”

However, Apple and Google’s model is still struggling to catch on in many countries. In the United States, just three states have openly said they will use the tech firms’ software to develop their tracing apps. And there has so far been no indication of an effort to introduce the technology at a federal level.

And even the Apple-Google model has its limitations. For example, there are fears that a reliance on Bluetooth rather than location tracking could lead to a flood of false positives due to the range of detection. Still, privacy advocates maintain it’s the best option available right now. And though the rollout of apps worldwide has been shaky so far, researchers think they’re still worth pursuing as a supplement to manual contact tracing.

For them to work, experts say they need to be part of a wider health strategy that encompasses mass testing and strict physical distancing measures. Germany’s app — which adopts the Apple-Google approach — has shown signs of promise, with 14 million people having downloaded it since its launch last month. 

“Contact-tracing apps need to be part of a much broader health care response,” said Abdul Rahim. “That includes widespread testing and access to adequate healthcare.”

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Venezuelan court sentences 2 former Green Berets to 20 years in prison

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ID cards of people linked to an operation denounced by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are displayed during a meeting with members of the Armed Forces in Caracas, Venezuela on May 4, 2020. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro confirmed the detention of two US “mercenaries” among 13 attackers involved in Sunday’s two failed maritime raids.

Miraflores Presidential Palace | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

A Venezuelan court sentenced two former U.S. special forces soldiers to 20 years in prison for their part in a failed beach attack aimed at overthrowing President Nicolas Maduro, prosecutors announced late Friday.

Former Green Berets Luke Denman and Airan Berry admitted to taking part in the May 4 operation orchestrated by a third ex-U.S. soldier who remains in the United States, Venezuelan’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced on Twitter.

“THEY ADMITTED THEIR RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE FACTS,” Saab wrote, adding that the case will continue for dozens of other defendants. He did not offer details.

“Operation Gideon” was launched from makeshift training camps in neighboring Colombia and left at least eight rebel soldiers dead while a total of 66 were jailed. Former Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, who operated a private, Florida-based security firm called Silvercorp USA, claimed responsibility for the failed attack.

Venezuelan prosecutors announced that Denman and Berry, both decorated former U.S. service members, were found guilty of conspiracy, trafficking in illegal arms and terrorism.

The two Americans arrested in the coastal fishing community of Chuao have ever since been widely displayed by officials on Venezuelan state TV as proof of their long-held claims that the United States is set on overthrowing Maduro’s socialist government.

The incident also unleashed claims that U.S. backed opposition leader Juan Guaido had authorized Goudreau through a signed agreement to carry out the attack, executed by two of Guaido’s former political advisors.

Guaido and U.S. officials have denied any role in the attack. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would use all possible means to win the freedom of Denman and Berry.

A day before authorities announced that the two ex-Green Berets were sentenced, Venezuelan authorities opened the trial of six American executives of the Houston-based Citgo company. The six men were arrested over two years ago in Venezuela on corruption charges.

The case had lingered for months until former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met personally in July with Maduro in Caracas to urge they be released so they could return home to the United States.

Both play out amid hostility between Washington and Caracas. The Trump administration last year threw its support behind opposition leader Guaido, who declared he was Venezuela’s legitimate president, vowing to oust Maduro.

Guaido blames Maduro for the once wealthy nation’s economic and social collapse, while the socialist leader says Washington is manipulating Guaido to steal the nation’s vast oil wealth.

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As Trump bans WeChat, some in China turn to encrypted messaging app Signal

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The Signal Messenger app is displayed on a smartphone in Hong Kong, China.

Roy Liu | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s executive order banning American use of WeChat, the most popular app in China, takes effect next month, but some in China are already turning to an American app renowned for its privacy protections.

Downloads for Signal, an encrypted chat app that privacy advocates generally regard as best-in-class for everyday use, are spiking in China, a spokesperson for the app said Friday.

The Chinese government heavily regulates domestic internet use, funneling most of its citizens to WeChat, a multipurpose app that offers messaging, games and ridesharing options, among other uses. On Thursday, Trump, citing the likelihood that WeChat sends users’ data to the Chinese government, signed an executive order banning people and companies in the U.S. from engaging in “any transaction” with the app beginning Sept. 20.

It’s unclear whether that would require U.S. companies to cut off access to the app, but the order comes as Trump has threatened broad bans on Chinese tech companies operating in the U.S.

China’s Great Firewall, a censorship system that restricts citizens from directly visiting much of the internet, bans easy access to most other major Western chat programs. While a comparatively small number of Americans use WeChat, a ban would hamper those who use the app to communicate with friends, family or business associates in China.

But Signal isn’t blocked by the Great Firewall, both for iPhones via the App Store and Android via a direct download from Signal’s website, as Google’s Play Store is blocked.

“We are actually not banned in China, believe it or not,” said Jun Harada, a spokesperson for Signal.

While he declined to share actual download numbers because of a policy of not sharing user data, he said downloads in China began to skyrocket in the hours before Trump’s ban. “It’s looking to be on par if not bigger than when we made it to #1 in the App Store in Hong Kong,” he said, referring to a spike in downloads there last month, when China began implementing its National Security Law, which gave the country broad powers to crack down on protests in Hong Kong.

“We think that has helped us to get more mainstream awareness within China but also with the Chinese diaspora,” Harada said.

Signal gets high marks from privacy experts because it stores little information about its users and its messages are end-to-end encrypted, meaning a government that accesses them in transit would only see them encoded.

Yaqui Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said she has long used Signal to communicate with people inside China, but cautioned that the government there could move to block it if it catches censors’ eyes, making it all the more difficult for people in the U.S. and China to communicate directly.

“Chinese authorities can block Signal if its popularity surges, just as it did to WhatsApp and Telegram,” Wang said.

“The bifurcation of the internet, the formation of two paralleled information and communication universes is becoming increasingly evident,” she said.

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City in China’s Inner Mongolia issues warning after bubonic plague patient dies

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Authorities in a city in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia issued a warning after a patient who had bubonic plague died of multiple organ failure, state media reported on Saturday.

Cases of plague are not uncommon in China, although outbreaks have become increasingly rare. From 2009 to 2018, China reported 26 cases and 11 deaths.

The patient was confirmed to have bubonic plague, the People’s Daily reported, citing an announcement from the health committee of the Bayan Nur city. The bubonic plague, known as the “Black Death” in the Middle Ages, is a highly infectious and often fatal disease that is spread mostly by rodents.

The committee issued a third-level alert, the second lowest in a four-level system, effective Friday to the end of 2020 to prevent the spread of the disease, the People’s Daily reported.

This marks the second death of a plague patient reported this month in the Inner Mongolia region.

Residential buildings in Baotou city, Inner Mongolia.

Simon Song | South China Morning Post | Getty Images

On Thursday, authorities in Baotou city, which is adjacent to Bayan Nur city, reported that a patient with an “intestinal-type plague” died of circulatory system failure.

Bayan Nur authorities have locked down the area where the dead patient lived and quarantined seven close contacts of the patient, who have tested negative for the disease so far and taken preventive medicines.

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