A contact tracing app could help stop the spread of COVID-19 only if billions of people use it — here's a 3-step plan for how to make that happen


woman talking on phone car

  • Daniel Schreiber is the CEO and cofounder of Lemonade, an insurance company powered by artificial intelligence and behavioral economics.
  • He says that contact tracing — a technology that to notifies you when someone you were in close quarters with is diagnosed with COVID-19 — could help curb the pandemic, but only if governments step aside and let large multinational corporations take the lead. 
  • Schreiber explains that consumers will be more willing to give their data away to a business than to the government: “Right or wrong, corporations can do what governments cannot.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“I don’t know about you people,” declared Gavin Belson, the spoof Silicon Valley CEO from the hit series of the same name, “but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place, better than we do!”

daniel schreiber headshot

This parody is now playing out for real with the coronavirus ‘contact tracing’ tech — only there’s nothing funny about it this time.

Contact tracing apps are meant to notify people when someone they were in close quarters with is diagnosed with COVID-19. The idea is to alert those at high risk of being infectious so they quarantine, allowing the rest of us to move about with relative confidence. For this to work though, your contact tracing app needs to be able to ‘handshake’ with everyone else’s — which is why the profusion of incompatible solutions is a mortal mistake.

Singapore launched a COVID-19 contact tracing app on March 20. Israel launched theirs three days later, and things snowballed from there. The smorgasbord of governments promoting incompatible apps now includes those of Austria, China, the Czech Republic, Ghana, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Italy, North Macedonia, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, and South Korea, with the promise of more to come from Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK. Not to be outdone, the great state of Utah is working on its own contact tracing app, as are several other states. The path to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions.

COVID-19 doesn’t know there’s a border between Denmark and Germany, and neither should our contact tracing. Flooding the planet with provincial apps that nobody uses makes it harder to get what we really need: a universal solution that is actually installed by billions of people.

Here’s a three-step proposal for achieving just that.

Step 1: We need a credible leader to emerge

A few days ago, it did: Google and Apple joined forces to create an anonymous and global contact tracing technology which will be built into every Android and iOS smartphone. Their architecture neither stores nor discloses personal or medical information, ensuring it cannot be abused by rogue governments, or co-opted by corporate interests.

Our own company, Lemonade, had been trying to rally support for something similar when the Google-Apple news broke, and we shelved our effort to back theirs. If we’re all going to unite behind a single technology, the one by the makers of the only two mobile operating systems is the one to back.

Step 2: Other companies need to join their efforts

The second step, therefore, is for all competing initiatives to do the same: stop proliferating parochial solutions, and start backing Google and Apple. It’s not enough though, to stem the splintering — we need to positively incentivize universal usage of this universal solution. Governments are leery of mandating usage of their own apps, let alone Silicon Valley’s, and consumers are wary of using government-sanctioned tech. Both stances make sense, but neither heralds global adoption.

That’s a problem. Modeling done at Oxford University suggests that 80% of us need to install the app if the pandemic is to be stopped. In Singapore, the poster child for contact tracing apps, only 17% of people did.

The good news is that corporations can do what governments cannot. When Edward Snowden exposed the extent of the US government’s data gathering on its citizens, everyone was horrified. But we remained quite comfortable with Google harvesting far more data from our phones than the NSA ever did.

You see, when we give up some privacy in a commercial exchange, we feel like we’re exercising our freedom. When governments invade our privacy, we feel like we’re losing our freedom. Right or wrong, therein lies our salvation: Corporations can do what governments cannot.

Step 3: Large corporations need to build the contact tracing tech into their services

The final step then is for a few large corporations to incorporate the Google-Apple tech into their service, so that we all choose to join this effort. That’s right, five or six well-placed CEOs, acting in their shareholders’ best interest, can change everything for everyone without breaking a sweat.

Imagine, for example, if Starbucks’ 30,000 global locations required patrons to tap their phone on a reader before entering the store, confirming they have contact tracing enabled, and are unlikely to have been in close quarters with a COVID-19 patient in the past two weeks. How much sooner might you get that white chocolate mocha frappuccino with an extra shot of espresso?

Imagine if Uber made its app run the same check automatically on your device, so that before sending a car it confirmed you are low-risk for being contagious — and extended you the same peace of mind about the driver who picks you up.

Star Alliance flies to 98% of the world’s countries, AMC runs 11,000 movie theatres worldwide, the Simon Property Group controls 250 million square feet of shopping malls globally. Imagine if you had to scan your device before boarding one of those planes, entering one of those cinemas, or shopping at one of those malls.

All it would take is for these five multinationals — or a handful of similarly placed corporations — to pledge to check for the Google-Apple contact tracing before extending service to patrons, and two things would happen.

The first is that Starbucks coffee shops, Uber drivers, Star Alliance airlines, AMC cinemas, and SPG malls would all be open for business and flourishing that much sooner.

The second is that around the world countless eateries, stores, hotels, stadiums, theatres, museums, schools, trains, planes, and automobiles would take the pledge too. This cascade would ensure ubiquitous contact tracing across the globe — without a single law mandating it.

The Google-Apple architecture is entirely anonymous, allowing the world to start turning again, without sacrificing our privacy to our governments nor, indeed, to Google, Apple, or any commercial interests. In taking steps one through three, humanity will have joined forces behind a single, confidential, and global contact tracing solution — and it is humanity that will reap all the rewards.

A ubiquitous and incognito system for contact tracing can be a reality within weeks. It won’t be a panacea — massive testing, social distancing, and frequent handwashing are going to be critical for a while — but it can change things beyond recognition. It will enable well-meaning people who contract COVID-19 to effortlessly and anonymously ensure anyone they may have unknowingly infected is alerted to self-quarantine — letting everyone else move about the world that much safer, that much sooner.

When it comes to contact tracing, it’s like Ronald Reagan said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” All that is needed now is for competing initiatives to back off, for leaders of multinationals to step up, and for governments to cheer from the cheap seats.

Daniel Schreiber is the CEO and cofounder of Lemonade, the insurance carrier powered by artificial intelligence and behavioral economics. His previous roles include SVP Global Marketing and General Manager at SanDisk, and VP of Business Development and Marketing at msystems, which SanDisk acquired for $1.6B. Schreiber began his career as a corporate-commercial attorney.

READ MORE: The coronavirus is changing what ‘normal’ means for businesses around the world. Here are 3 ways it could become a change for the better.

SEE ALSO: Scott Galloway: While schools are closed, the US should hire 550,000 students to be a ‘fighting force of super-soldiers standing ready’ to fight COVID-19

Join the conversation about this story »

NOW WATCH: Pathologists debunk 13 coronavirus myths