Connecting state and local government leaders
The executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project weighs in on the failures of contact tracing apps, vaccine passports and why an analog approach to fighting the pandemic is sometimes best.
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.