Contact tracing tools an issue to keep tabs on

"I call my brother and he accepts the gloomy update well; we've had a few similar conversations...
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Awkward does not begin to describe my behaviour.

‘‘I’ve only got a burner phone but I’m not a drug dealer,’’ I told the ever-patient restaurateur as she watched me stabbing blindly at the tablet screen on the counter.

Her response suggested she was not so sure about that.

I was explaining why, unlike the others at the table, I could not register my contact details by using a QR code on a smartphone. This old Luddite-by-choice has a phone which would not know its apps from its elbow. (While we are on the subject of elbows, my nearly 3-year-old grandson has proclaimed knees as leg elbows. Who needs an app with logic like that?).

The absence of my reading glasses made it worse. It took me about five goes to enter my email correctly including much faffing about over how to work the shift key to find the @ symbol. Not my happiest Level 2 experience.

It is not clear to me how the restaurant would know if all of its customers had used the QR code. Did someone check that?

In the first few days of the shift to Level 2 in the Covid-19 alert system, which included travel to Invercargill to meet my gorgeous new grandson, I have had a variety of contact register experiences.

While the legislation around contact tracing under Level 2 says the following is required: my full name and residential address, effective means of contacting me (a working phone number or email address), date of entering the business and times in and out, I do not think any of the registers I used complied with all of that.

Variations on the theme have been name and telephone number; name, telephone number and email; name, telephone number and address. Not all have included times in and nowhere have I written the time out.

Where I have used pen and paper to record details I have always been able to see other people’s contact details, contrary to the advice of Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, made back in March in those lazy, hazy, crazy days before Level 4.

He suggested then it would be possible to obscure previous entries with a cover which the next customer could move down when they had filled in their entry. There would be other ways of protecting the information.

‘‘For example, don’t let patrons photograph the register.’’

All of the paper registers I have used could have easily been photographed by other patrons when busy staff were otherwise occupied.

If there were privacy statements explaining how the information would be stored and used, I did not see them. They may well have been there, but they certainly were not obvious.

There is a level of sloppiness about this which is disconcerting and unnecessary, given there has been weeks to sort it out.

There has been at least one report of a worker stalking a customer after getting her contact details from a register. There may be other instances of misuse we are yet to learn about.

Some retailers, outside the hospitality industry, remain confused. I was asked for contact information at a wool shop when clearly that is not required under the legislation. Even though I knew it was not necessary, I entered my details because I felt sorry for the shopkeeper. At a time when we know retailers are doing it hard, who wants to be the difficult customer?

Today, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is going to announce a digital diary app which will allow people to log their movements, keeping the data to themselves.

Then, if you find at some point you have Covid-19, you have a record of where you have been as an aid to contact tracing.

It is not clear how this will fit with the legislation requiring contact tracing information to be kept by businesses.

A new more advanced contact tracing app involving data sharing is still being worked on, apparently.

I hope the Government has listened closely to Mr Edwards, who pointed out in an interview last week that there is no evidence that any of these apps work.

In Singapore, where a fifth of the population had downloaded an app, only six contacts were traced who might not otherwise have been able to be reached.

There was also a risk tracers could be swamped with irrelevant information, making their job harder.

In the midst of app enthusiasm, scant attention seems to have been paid to the estimated 10% to 20% of the population without a smartphone. Isn’t that important? Not all will be cranky tech avoiders like me, but they may be elderly or from low socio-economic groups.

I’m not convinced what comes next will avoid being slap appy or appy clappy.

■ Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.


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