While contact tracing applications for COVID-19 can reach more people than traditional contact tracing methods, policymakers will still have to weigh the benefits and challenges of utilizing the new technology, including privacy and security issues.

That’s the latest recommendation from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which released a new report on July 28 discussing contact tracing apps and how they can help reduce transmission rates for the novel coronavirus. The Federal government watchdog cautioned, however, that policymakers and public health officials will have to consider the accuracy of the technology, adoption rates, and a host of other issues.

“Although proximity tracing apps are relatively new, they have the potential to help slow disease transmission,” GAO said. “But policymakers will need to consider how great the benefits are likely to be, given the challenges.”

According to GAO, policymakers will have to answer the following questions, among others:

  • “What steps can policymakers take to build public trust and encourage communities to support and use proximity tracing apps, and mitigate lack of adoption by some populations?
  • What legal, procedural, privacy, security, and technical safeguards could protect data collected through proximity tracing apps?
  • What can policymakers do to improve coordination of contact tracing efforts across local, state, and international jurisdictions?
  • What can policymakers do to expedite testing and communication of test results to maximize the benefits of proximity tracing apps?
  • What can policymakers do to ensure that contact identification is accurate and that its criteria are based on scientific evidence?”

Contact tracing apps can reach more people, provide faster response times, and provide more complete identification of contacts, but there are challenges with utilizing the technology.

For example, GAO says that technological limitations may lead to missed contacts or false identifications and that the apps are also limited by low adoption rates. Additionally, access to smartphones and knowledgeable use of the devices can limit adoption, especially among vulnerable populations like seniors. Interoperability may also be a concern because if apps diverge too much in design, then there might be greater difficulty in exchanging data between the apps.

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.