Viruses jump borders; should contact-tracing apps do so too?


Posted by Rohan Samarajiva on May 12, 2020  /  0 Comments

When teaching the “low politics” of international relations, I used to begin with infectious diseases and the need for the WHO. Diseases do not respect borders; their control therefore cannot be limited to what goes on within national borders. Nation states need to cooperate. Therefore the justification for WHO.

In its peculiar way, COVID-19 highlighted how connected the world has become. The disease is introduced to countries by travelers. Countries that did not pay attention to ill-housed migrant workers in their midst were rudely reminded that the destinies of citizens and migrants were intertwined. Now as countries begin to consider opening borders again, they are also considering how to use technology to keep track of those who cross borders for work, business or pleasure. Compatible apps seems likely to become as important as roaming on mobile phones.

The issue first came up in Brexited Britain:

The Irish border poses a further problem. Ireland, like most European countries, has chosen to use a decentralised system built atop the Google and Apple protocol. The Irish and British apps will therefore be unable to communicate, so the contacts of the 30,000 people who commute across the border with Northern Ireland every day will not be traced on the other side. Scotland is not keen on the nhs app either, and will not push its adoption. The same problem will apply to cross-border tracking of foreign tourists in Britain, or Brits abroad. Apple’s and Google’s protocol allows for national apps built using it to talk to each other. The nhs app does not.

The Economist thinks the UK government will have to retreat and accept a solution that will work across borders.

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