Personality

COVID-19 technology is failing us

Albert Fox Cahn on the failures of contact tracing apps, vaccine passports and why an analog approach to fighting the pandemic is sometimes best.

Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Founder and Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn

Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Founder and Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn Surveillance Technology Oversight Project

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York last year, the state and local governments turned to technology to save us. The state launched a “Technology SWAT Team” and eventually launched a contact tracing app to help track positive cases. When vaccines became available, vaccine finders and sign-up websites were used to connect New Yorkers to appointments. Today, New York City and state offer several vaccine passport mobile apps between them.

Technology tools like these haven’t been relied on exclusively in New York – contact tracing was done by phone, and paper vaccination cards have to be accepted anywhere a vaccine passport app is – but they’ve been front-and-center in the fight to keep New Yorkers safe and prevent further spread of the virus. So the fact that these kinds of tools have at times displayed rampant flaws is a pretty big problem, COVID-19 response-wise.

Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, or STOP, has been sounding the alarm about the risks of relying on these tools since last spring. Some of the same security concerns about contact tracing apps last year are still present in vaccine passport apps today. To demonstrate the flaws of New York City’s vaccine passport app, Cahn tried to upload a picture of Mickey Mouse to the app. The photo of the cartoon mouse was accepted as Cahn’s photo identification, proof of vaccine and proof of a negative COVID-19 test result.

City & State caught up with Cahn recently to discuss the flaws he still sees in COVID-19 tech, the steps New York could take to improve this part of their pandemic response, and why a paper vaccination card works just fine on its own. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

When did you first realize that the technology being released by the government in response to the pandemic was going to be problematic? Was it contact tracing apps, or something else?

There’s been this pattern throughout the pandemic where, very early on, in the first early months, I saw these tools – early examples of exposure notification apps – being rolled out overseas or proposed. And it became quite clear that this was going to become a really potent issue going forward. Not just because of the privacy concerns, but because of all of the equity concerns, the other civil rights concerns, and just this clear pattern we've had in the U.S., that every time we roll out a new form of government data collection, it's turned into a new type of policing technology.

What was your reaction to New York’s contact tracing app, when it was launched last fall?

New York was a relatively late adopter, and by the time we were rolling out our exposure notification app, it was quite clear that the technology didn't work. During the pandemic, there was a lot that we sacrificed in order to save lives. But with these tools, it was just really stark that there are a lot of potential problems, but they (also) actually weren't good ways of measuring when someone was potentially exposed to COVID-19. So this was partially because all these tools tried to do was measure our physical distance to other people using Bluetooth low energy beacons. And even if that technology worked, just tracking distance is a poor proxy for tracking exposure. Because that app can't tell you whether people were wearing masks, it can’t tell you if they were indoors or out, it can’t tell you any of the things that human contact tracers ask when they’re following up with someone who tests positive. And then looking at Bluetooth in practice, it was quite clear that because of the limitations of Bluetooth beacons, it was a really bad way to try to measure people’s physical distance. 

The state legislature passed a bill STOP supported that required contact tracing data to be kept confidential and prohibits law enforcement and immigration authorities from accessing it. Are there other steps New York could take to do contact tracing mobile apps in a better way?

I haven't seen a good example of those sorts of exposure notification apps. And really, when you look at the most effective measures that have been used around the world, it's oftentimes been social safety net programs. The theme we keep hitting here is that we have really tough choices. We have really hard problems to solve. And we keep being told that these technologies can solve them for us. But they keep coming up short and posing threats that they claim to protect against.

That’s a criticism that New York state and New York City’s vaccine passport apps have faced too. What concerns do you have about these apps?

I think we're wasting millions and millions of dollars on apps that at the end of the day are no better than the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) white card that we all get for free when we're vaccinated. I want to emphasize that I want every New Yorker who can to get vaccinated, I want to make sure that we're encouraging vaccination. But these apps, they've been a really poor way of promoting vaccinations. So Excelsior Pass, for example, has been riddled with errors. There are numerous New Yorkers who want to register who have been vaccinated, but because of errors in the state database or because they're vaccinated out of state, (they) are ineligible. On top of that, we see that the app actually is not very secure. Under the state’s contract, we're paying IBM up to $17 million for this app. And when I tested it, I was able to forge a volunteer’s Excelsior Pass in just 11 minutes.

You’ve also been able to demonstrate security flaws in New York City’s recently released vaccine passport app, called the NYC COVID Safe App.

When I downloaded the New York City app, I was astounded. Because it's not a vaccine app. It's just a camera app dressed up as a health tool. And so I uploaded an image of Mickey Mouse as my vaccine card, my test results and my driver's license, and all three were accepted. And part of what's maddening about this is that the mayor was going on national TV to talk about how important this app was, and it’s no different from the camera app that people have been using to safeguard a copy of their vaccine card. It's just a complete PR stunt.

What would be a better use of the millions of dollars that are being spent by New York on paying for and developing these vaccine passport apps?

The things that have worked best throughout this pandemic are often low tech. We could have created with the Excelsior Pass money hundreds of different lottery prizes for people to get vaccinated. We could have created scholarships, we could have created massive incentives, we could have paid for hyperlocal door-to-door vaccine promotion. There are all these different things that work, that would have helped advance vaccination in New York far better than just another app.

When you look back over the last year and a half, are there other tools or technologies that have come out of the pandemic that concern you?

There’s been a lot of hygiene theater during the pandemic. Things like thermal imaging kiosks and thermal imaging cameras that were set up as a way to try to identify people with COVID-19. The problem is that a lot of COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic. They don't have a fever. And people can have fevers for all sorts of other reasons. I also think that people are not yet aware of the type of harms that come from increasingly relying on QR codes for restaurant menus and other information. Every time you click on a QR code, there's a possibility for someone to inject malware into your phone and to hijack it.

What do you hope governments learn and do better in the future when it comes to releasing these civic technology tools?

I think that one thing we have to recognize is that the things that we allow for simply the duration of this emergency are likely to become a permanent feature of our lives. That's the lesson of 9/11, and the counterterrorism measures that we said would just be here for a short time but 20 years later are an inescapable part of how we've rebuilt our society. Another part of this is just that I wish that governments would actually talk to the skeptics, and not just the salespeople who are selling these tools. Because there are a lot of valuable technologies that can be rolled out in response to the pandemic and novel threats. Things like effective vaccine websites, testing portals, and all sorts of things that we've seen civic technologists do to improve health equity and access. But oftentimes, they get the pitch from these vendors, write a check and cross their fingers that it will actually make things better. But all too often, it just makes things worse.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.