Coronavirus Tracing Apps Are Being Tested Around the World, But Will Concerts Get Onboard?

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Google and Apple may have the solution to allay privacy concerns, but tech flaws persist.

Will contact-tracing smartphone apps become the new dress code that gets you past the velvet rope in the coronavirus clubbing era?

In China, some cities have used government-mandated health-tracking apps on smartphones to restore nightlife. Venues like the 500-person Arkham club in Shanghai started scanning a three-color QR code app at entrance doors in mid-March in order to gain permission from the government to reopen after some two months of widespread lockdowns to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Across the world, from Singapore to the United States, a concerted effort by tech companies and governments to create similar contact-tracing apps soon followed. Yet despite that push, smartphone apps aren’t yet gaining much traction outside of China as a potential tool to help re-ignite paralyzed live music scenes. That’s due largely to the complexity of balancing data-privacy issues with urgent health needs in a world battling the COVID-19 pandemic on many fronts, underscoring just how difficult it will be to restore events as we’ve known them in 2020 without the discovery of a vaccine or some other unseen breakthrough.

Live music executives and privacy experts in the United States and other parts of the world tell Billboard they are uncertain about how reliable smartphone contact-tracing technology will prove to be for restoring confidence to nightclub and festival attendees amid spotty testing, privacy concerns and still-emerging medical information about the virus.

But in the U.S., where such apps have yet to rolled out, the stage is being set for flashing a smartphone code at the door to become a fixture of nightclubbing life, says JC Diaz, president of the American Nightlife Association, whose 30,000 members include venue owners and promoters. "There are nightclub groups and some festival producers who are talking about doing it," says Diaz. "This is going to happen, whether people want to or not. For us, at the end of the day, it’s a balance of opening up the economy safely and making sure our guests are safe at these venues. If technology can help us accomplish both goals then we are in full support of it."

As the pandemic has cascaded throughout the world, governments in South Korea, Singapore, the U.K., Israel, India, Italy, Norway and many other countries, have also launched contact-tracing apps. Most of the apps rely on self-reported health information and use a combination of Bluetooth and GPS-enabled location services to track smartphone users’ brushes with people infected with the virus.

In order for the apps to be effective at figuring out how widespread the outbreak is in a given area, at least 60% of people need to sign up to use them, epidemiologists have said. So far, most countries are falling far short of that threshold.

Since launching March 20, Singapore’s Trace Together app has had about 25% of residents sign on. In India, Aarogya Setu, a contact-tracing app the government initially made mandatory for the country’s public and private sector, has more than 100 million installations, or about 20% of estimated smartphone users. In Israel, less than 25% of the population has downloaded its app, dubbed “The Shield.” In Norway, the “Smittestopp” (Stop the Contagion) app has about 642,000 active users, less than 20% of the population.

China’s health-tracking apps use GPS-tracking and are installed in messaging app WeChat and online payment platform Alipay. They are being used in more than 300 Chinese cities. The health QR codes are linked to residents’ national ID and passport numbers. They register red, yellow and green codes depending on the user’s health status. Green means you are symptom-free and allowed to travel. Red means you either have or are likely to have the coronavirus. Yellow means you have had contact with another infected person.

Tensions Persist Over Privacy Concerns

Complicating adoption of the apps are data-privacy concerns in numerous countries. The biggest question marks are the use of smartphone geo-locators and uncertainty over who will safeguard medical information -- and for how long.

In Norway, the Smittestopp app, which uses a combination of Bluetooth and GPS, collects data on the movement and health status of its users. Thanks to a special law passed by the Norwegian parliament that gives the government extended powers, health authorities are storing the data for up to 30 days; they are supposed to purge it by Dec. 20, when the special law expires.

Trying to use the app as an entrance tool for clubbers would likely stoke a privacy battle, as there is no law in Norway that allows someone to demand health documentation, says Torgeir Waterhouse, a partner in Otte, a Norwegian tech consulting firm. “Who has the right to demand that I prove I am healthy?” Waterhouse says. “The doorman?”

Paul Mangerud, the co-owner of the Oslo clubs Internasjonalen and Blå, says a contact-tracing app would be a tough sell to his customers. “An important part of nightlife is feeling free,” he says. “I am not sure our customers would like this type of surveillance.”

In India, which was recently ranked the world’s third-worst surveillance state, nightlife promoters and venue operators say their chief concern is the invasion of their patrons’ privacy. It’s especially important for a queer-friendly space like Kitty Su where club regulars “feel really free and liberated,” says Arnav Banerjee, the nightclub chain’s national programming head. “At any point we don’t want to take any steps to breach that trust.”

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Aarogya Setu

As Israel was introducing its voluntary open-source app in late March, its internal security service was already doing more invasive contact tracing -- the centuries-old process of trying to identify people who have been in contact with a verified patient -- under a government decree, without asking consent from the country’s residents. Last month, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the decree, saying it was unconstitutional and would require legislation. While severe, the government efforts to track the virus have helped contain the outbreak, medical experts have said, and emboldened Israelis to resume life faster than many other countries. Last week about 3,000 people showed up for an outdoor music concert billed as a protest event, practicing little social distancing.

While many in China have publicly lauded the QR code as vital to protecting public health, privacy experts see China’s program as the most invasive in the world. Tencent and Alibaba, which are part-owners of the software, have denied they are providing user data to the government’s health code program, saying that developers have to ask users for permission before obtaining data outside the online questionnaire.

Google-Apple Helping Create Privacy-Friendly Apps

Meanwhile, Google and Apple have sought to allay fears of privacy breaches with their joint effort to create a contact-tracing architecture for developers that would use less-invasive Bluetooth to tell a user if they’ve crossed paths with someone with the virus. The data would be decentralized so no one entity would control it. A user would get a code with a diagnosis verified by public health authorities. The smartphone app would exchange randomly generated Bluetooth identifiers with other phones with the app, looking for possible COVID-19 positives. (The actual apps would be built by verified public health authorities.)

“With this decentralized architecture, it is almost impossible to hack through the system and identify a specific individual,” says Omer Tene, the chief technology officer at International Association of Privacy Professionals.

The Google-Apple architecture nevertheless exposes the quirks of Bluetooth technology, Tene says. Bluetooth can identify someone being in proximity to someone else even if they’re across a wall or in another apartment, creating false positives. The system also breaks down when users forget to take their phone with them or turn off Bluetooth -- and signals don’t cross easily through water. And the apps, which need to always be running in the background, drain phone batteries faster.

Privacy experts in the U.S. contend there is nothing legally stopping governments from mandating the use of health data-tracking apps. “The law can certainly permit some kind of surveillance under these types of emergency conditions,” says Jane Bambauer, a law professor at the University of Arizona that specializes in privacy. “Especially when we’re in a position like we are now, where the alternatives to very invasive monitoring are equally repugnant and stifling of our rights,” she says, speaking of government lockdowns.

Nevertheless, with contract-tracing apps in mind, a group of Republican senators on April 30 introduced the COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act. “This bill strikes the right balance between innovation – allowing technology companies to continue their work toward developing platforms that could trace the virus and help flatten the curve and stop the spread – and maintaining privacy protections for U.S. citizens,” Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said in a statement.

U.S. Promoters Remain Skeptical, For Now

Despite the myriad concerns over health-tracking apps’ use, some nightlife execs in Spain and Italy, in their urgency to stop the bleeding from canceled live events, have advocated for their use, citing China’s success in using them to restart parts of its nightlife.

But some live event executives in the U.S. are less convinced.

“I would definitely consider it and we’re looking at it,” says dance music promoter Donnie Estopinal, CEO of Disco Donnie Presents. “But it’s just one of those things that I think is still far down the road. People are too worried about their personal data.”

Diaz says that, for now, most ANA members are focusing on simpler mitigation strategies, including temperature checks at the door and social distancing. Las Vegas casino owners, however, are considering options such as requiring patrons to walk through an odorless misting sanitizing spray that won’t harm clothes, using UV lights to inspect glassware and countertops, and employing HVAC systems from cannabis companies to filter the air, he says.

Even if some live music executives are nervous about deploying health apps, seasoned clubbers may be more willing, says Simon Rust Lamb, an entertainment industry strategist. “On the nightclub level there is this history of data tracking tolerance to gain admission, especially on the bottle service level, which includes giving your driver's license and credit card and in some instances fingerprints,” Lamb says. “There are plenty of people who, if you ask them, ‘Are you prepared to let us track your health information?’ I think most people are going to say yes.”

Despite the initial enthusiasm, the color-coded apps in China have not been enough to save nightclubs there from economic ruin. After two months back in action, Arkham decided to shutter again -- this time for good, says Esa Mai, the club’s music director -- after one last party on May 16. Shareholders decided they didn’t have the stomach for mounting losses due to the pandemic, which were exacerbated by travel restrictions that are preventing international artists from performing in China this year, she says.

“If I were in the live music events business, I wouldn’t hold my breath,” says Tene at IAPP. “It is a stretch to hope or believe that these solutions will enable reopening before there’s a vaccine. The risk is just going to be too high.”

Additional reporting from Benson Zhang, Claudia Rosenbaum, Amit Gurbaxani and Heidi Taksdal Skjeseth