One of the best tools we have to slow the spread of the coronavirus is, as you have no doubt heard by now, contact tracing. But what exactly is contact tracing, who does it and how, and do you need to worry about it?
In short, contact tracing helps prevent the spread of a virus by proactively finding people at higher risk than others due to potential exposure, notifying them if possible, and quarantining them if necessary. It’s a proven technique, and smartphones could help make it even more effective — but only if privacy and other concerns can be overcome.
Contact tracing, from memory to RAM
Contact tracing has been done in some form or another as long as the medical establishment has understood the nature of contagious diseases. When a person is diagnosed with an infectious disease, they are asked whom they have been in contact with over the previous weeks, both in order to determine who may have been infected by them and perhaps where they themselves were infected.
Until very recently, however, the process has relied heavily on the recall of people who are in a highly stressful situation and, until prompted, were probably not paying special attention to their movements and interactions.
This results in a list of contacts that is far from complete, though still very helpful. If those people can be contacted and their contacts likewise traced, a network of potential infections can be built up without a single swab or blood drop, and lives can be saved or important resources better allocated.
You might think that has all changed now what with modern technology and all, but in fact contact tracing being done at hospitals right now is almost all still of the memory-based kind — the same we might have used a hundred years ago.
It certainly seems as if the enormous digital surveillance apparatus that has been assembled around us over the last decade should be able to accomplish this kind of contact tracing easily, but in fact it’s surprisingly useless for anything but tracking what you are likely to click on or buy.
While it would be nice to be able to piece together a contagious person’s week from a hundred cameras spread throughout the city and background location data collected by social media, the potential for abuse of such a system should make us thankful it is not so easy as that. In other, less dire circumstances the ability to track the exact movements and interactions of a person from their digital record would be considered creepy at best, and perhaps even criminal.
But it’s one thing when an unscrupulous data aggregator uses your movements and interests to target you with ads without your knowledge or consent — and quite another when people choose to use the forbidden capabilities of everyday technology in an informed and limited way to turn the tide of a global pandemic. And that’s what modern digital contact tracing is intended to do.
All modern mobile phones use wireless radios to exchange data with cell towers, Wi-Fi routers, and each other. On their own, these transmissions aren’t a very good way to tell where someone is or who they’re near — a Wi-Fi signal can travel 100 to 200 feet reliably, and a cell signal can go miles. Bluetooth, on the other hand, has a short range by design, less than 30 feet for good reception and with a swiftly attenuating signal that makes it unlikely to catch a stray contact from much further out than that.
We all know Bluetooth as the way our wireless earbuds receive music from our phones, and that’s a big part of its job. But Bluetooth, by design, is constantly reaching out and touching other Bluetooth-enabled devices — it’s how your car knows you’ve gotten into it, or how your phone detects a smart home device nearby.
Bluetooth chips also make brief contact without your knowledge with other phones and devices you pass nearby, and if they aren’t recognized, they delete each other from their respective memories as soon as possible. But what if they didn’t?
The type of contact tracing being tested and deployed around the world now uses Bluetooth signals very similar to the ones your phone already transmits and receives constantly. The difference is it just doesn’t automatically forget the other devices it comes into contact with.
Assuming the system is working correctly, what would happen when a person presents at the hospital with COVID-19 is basically just a digitally enhanced version of manual contact tracing. Instead of querying the person’s fallible memory, they query the phone’s much more reliable one, which has dutifully recorded all the other phones it has recently been close enough to connect to. (Anonymously, as we’ll see.)
Those devices — and it’s important to note that it’s devices, not people — would be alerted within seconds that they had recently been in contact with someone who has now been diagnosed with COVID-19. The notification they receive will contain information on what the affected person can do next: Download an app or call a number for screening, for instance, or find a nearby location for testing.
The ease, quickness, and comprehensiveness of this contact tracing method make it an excellent opportunity to help stem the spread of the virus. So why aren’t we all using it already?
Successes and potential worries
In fact digital contact tracing using the above method (or something very like it) has already been implemented with millions of users, apparently to good effect, in east Asia, which of course was hit by the virus earlier than the U.S. and Europe.
In Singapore the TraceTogether app was promoted by the government as the official means for contact tracing. South Korea saw the voluntary adoption of a handful of apps that tracked people known to be diagnosed. Taiwan was able to compare data from its highly centralized healthcare system to a contact tracing system it began work on during the SARS outbreak years ago. And mainland China has implemented a variety of tracking procedures through mega-popular services like WeChat and Alipay.
While it would be premature to make conclusions on the efficacy of these programs while they’re still underway, it seems at least anecdotally to have improved the response and potentially limited the spread of the virus.
But east Asia is a very different place from the U.S.; we can’t just take Taiwan’s playbook and apply it here (or in Europe, or Africa, etc.), for myriad reasons. There are also valid questions of privacy, security, and other matters that need to be answered before people, who for good reason are skeptical of the intentions of both the government and the private sector, will submit to this kind of tracking.
Right now there are a handful of efforts being made in the U.S., the largest profile by far being the collaboration between arch-rivals Apple and Google, which have proposed a cross-platform contact tracing method that can be added to phones at the operating system.
The system they have suggested uses Bluetooth as described above, but importantly does not tie it to a person’s identity in any way. A phone would have a temporary ID number of its own, and as it made contact with other devices, it exchanges numbers. These lists of ID numbers are collected and stored locally, not synced with the cloud or anything. And the numbers also change frequently so no single one can be connected to your device or location.
If and only if a person is determined to be infected with the virus, a hospital (not the person) is authorized to activate the contact tracing app, which will send a notification to all the ID numbers stored in the person’s phone. The notification will say that they were recently near a person now diagnosed with COVID-19 — again, these are only ID numbers generated by a phone and are not connected with any personal information. As discussed earlier, the people notified can then take whatever action seems warranted.
MIT has developed a system that works in a very similar way, and which some states are reportedly beginning to promote among their residents.
Naturally even this straightforward, decentralized, and seemingly secure system has its flaws; this article at the Markup gives a good overview, and I’ve summarized them below:
- It’s opt-in. This is a plus and a minus, of course, but means that many people may choose not to take part, limiting how comprehensive the list of recent contacts really is.
- It’s vulnerable to malicious interference. Bluetooth isn’t particularly secure, which means there are several ways this method could be taken advantage of, should there be any attacker depraved enough to do so. Bluetooth signals could be harvested and imitated, for instance, or a phone driven through the city to “expose” it to thousands of others.
- It could lead to false positives or negatives. In order to maintain privacy, the notifications sent to others would contain a minimum of information, leading them to wonder when and how they might have been exposed. There will be no details like “you stood next to this person in line 4 days ago for about 5 minutes” or “you jogged past this person on Broadway.” This lack of detail may lead to people panicking and running to the ER for no reason, or ignoring the alert altogether.
- It’s pretty anonymous, but nothing is truly anonymous. Although the systems seem to work with a bare minimum of data, that data could still be used for nefarious purposes if someone got their hands on it. De-anonymizing large sets of data is practically an entire domain of study in data science now and it’s possible that these records, however anonymous they appear, could be cross-referenced with other data to out infected persons or otherwise invade one’s privacy.
- It’s not clear what happens to the data. Will this data be given to health authorities later? Will it be sold to advertisers? Will researcher be able to access it, and how will they be vetted? Questions like these could very well be answered satisfactorily, but right now it’s a bit of a mystery.
Contact tracing is an important part of the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and whatever method or platform is decided on in your area — it may be different state to state or even between cities — it is important that as many people as possible take part in order to make it as effective as possible.
There are risks, yes, but the risks are relatively minor and the benefits would appear to outweigh them by orders of magnitude. When the time comes to opt in, it is out of consideration for the community at large that one should make the decision to do so.
Nufa lets you live up to unrealistic beauty standards at the tap of an app • TechCrunch
It isn’t like Instagram is a beacon of truth as it is, but things are about to get a lot worse, as Nufa takes any image and sculpts you into the “after” picture dream that every gym owner wants to project into our souls as they continue on their mission to make us all look like body-building beasts with cleavage out the wazoo and abs for days.
The new mobile app “seamlessly transforms the human body into a picture in one click,” as it considers muscle structure, body type, skin color, body position and even tattoos to provide a “digital experience that hardly differs from real body transformation pics.”
“For women, we have an additional feature of transforming the breast from the 1st to the 5th size that works even with neckline clothes,” Nufa’s head of Analytics, Artem Petrikeev, said in an email to TechCrunch. “We are changing body pics similar to how Faceapp changes selfies.”
Can we be done making ourselves feel less than already?
But hey, if this is your jam, I guess you, too, can see what you’d look like if you conformed to completely unrealistic beauty standards. You do you, boo, but if you install this app, perhaps think about what it is you’re buying into. You’re perfect as you are, and if you don’t believe that, think about where that belief came from.
TechCrunch’s parent company links up with Taboola • TechCrunch
Folks often ask if Crunchbase and TechCrunch are still the same company (nope). Many express surprise that AOL was once this publication’s sole parent (yep). The saga of Who Owns TechCrunch is actually somewhat interesting. Various corporate developments over the last decade saw TechCrunch trade hands several times, including our most recent ejection from Verizon (long story) into the arms of private equity (shorter story).
Today we’re part of a reconstituted Yahoo, an entity that combines its historical assets — sans Alibaba — with AOL and other properties including this publication. I bring all that up because our parent company is in the news today. So much so that we’re pushing the value of a public company sharply higher by dint of our partnering with it, and taking a sizable stake in its equity at the same time.
The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.
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Because my employer is about to own just under a fourth of Taboola, I want to rewind the clock a bit today and recall how we wound up in a world where both Taboola and Outbrain — online advertising companies that you are familiar with, and have at times collected criticism — are public companies.
This should be lightweight and fun. Frankly, before today, I had never read a Taboola or Outbrain earnings report. We will explore together! Into the numbers!
A merger that didn’t
Yahoo gets 25% stake in Taboola as part of long-term advertising deal • TechCrunch
Yahoo is taking a nearly 25% stake in advertising network Taboola. In exchange for this move, Taboola is becoming Yahoo’s native advertising partner through a 30-year commercial agreement.
If you’re not familiar with Taboola, you may have seen its content recommendation widgets on popular news websites, such as USA Today, Insider and The Weather Channel. They mostly feature sponsored links that lead to third-party websites. Those links appear in recommendation widgets at the end of news articles or in the middle of a content newsfeed.
Yahoo is a name that you may already know quite well. It is now a private company owned by investment firm Apollo Global Management. It owns many popular media properties, such as Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Sports, Yahoo News, AOL and Engadget. Yahoo’s homepage and Yahoo Mail are also important products for the company as they attract large audiences. Yahoo is TechCrunch’s parent company as well.
This isn’t the first time Taboola is signing a strategic partnership that covers some of these properties. In 2015, Verizon acquired AOL. The next year, Taboola and AOL signed a strategic partnership that led to integrations of Taboola’s ads on AOL properties. Shortly after, Verizon also acquired Yahoo and merged AOL with Yahoo.
And now, the second incarnation of Yahoo, which includes AOL’s activities and operates separately from Verizon, is doubling down on digital advertising. With this new deal, Taboola becomes the exclusive partner for native advertising across all of Yahoo’s digital properties.
It means that you’ll soon scroll through news articles on Yahoo Finance and see an item that looks just like a normal article. But it will be a Taboola-powered advertising unit instead. Or at least, that’s the idea. Advertisers will be able to buy Taboola through the Yahoo DSP.
“Partnering with Taboola enables Yahoo to further enhance the contextual and native offerings within our unified advertising stack. The partnership also allows Yahoo and Taboola to continue to differentiate in market, improving user, advertiser and publisher experiences across properties, while benefiting from the long-term tailwinds in digital native advertising,” Yahoo CEO Jim Lanzone said in a statement.
As Yahoo currently reaches nearly 900 million monthly active users, it represents a significant deal for Taboola. Right now, Taboola partners with 9,000 publishers and reaches 500 million users every day.
This deal isn’t just a way to display Taboola ads in front of more eyeballs. As technology companies and regulators are cracking down on privacy-invasive targeting methods, adtech companies like Taboola need to find new ways to target audiences in an effective way.
“Our collaboration with Yahoo will give advertisers access to what I believe is the most sophisticated contextual dataset online. Together, we’re going to build a ‘Contextual Powerhouse’, enabling advertisers to target relevant audiences without relying on third-party cookies and while maintaining complete user privacy,” Taboola founder and CEO Adam Singolda writes in a blog post.
Taboola went public last year by merging with a special purpose acquisition company, also known as a SPAC. Taboola shares (NASDAQ:TBLA) are currently up 70% in pre-market trading compared to yesterday’s closing price — but Taboola shares have been steadily going down over the past twelve months. Shares should open at around $3.14.
As part of the deal, Yahoo is becoming Taboola’s largest shareholder with a 24.99% stake in the advertising network company. Yahoo will also get a seat on Taboola’s board of directors. Both companies expect to generate $1 billion in annual revenue from this newly formed partnership if integrations go well.
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