United Nations app to help socially distance for coronavirus 'does not work'

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/04/30/united-nations-app-to-help-soc.html

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Uh… why would I need an app to tell me if someone else is nearby? Is this supposed to protect me from ninjas who forgot to disable their bluetooth devices before sneaking up on me?


Hmmm… this is not going to help their image right now.


Why in this galaxy would anyone do that?? Any Bluetooth device not running their app is probably transmitting at normal power levels, which means that it could be 60’ away, easy. (Using a Pi3B+ at the front of the house, I can audit the phones in passing cars on the street at the end of the driveway, and probably on the sidewalk on the other side.)

Unless their app uses a custom service with a particular power setting, they can’t make any assumptions about other devices, power levels, antennas, and especially distance. (And when they can make assumptions, it’s pretty fuzzy as it is.)

What does being close/far from a Bluetooth device that’s not a phone even tell anyone?


You never know. In 2008, during the Anonymous raids on Scientology, I kept telling people to turn off the damned Bluetooth on their phones, because they were very leaky back in the day.


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Bluetooth can be wonky. Maybe they should go with a hardwired cable, say 1,5 meters in length.

They don’t have good technical acumen.

Hence doing things like clumsily trying to cover up a major breach

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I’m shocked, shocked I say that something based on Bluetooth isn’t working properly.


I held out a long time, but finally got a new phone when I saw the SE would not have a headphone port. Security updates would have ceased with the next iOS.

Good night, sweet prince.

I still stick to wired headphones, but inability to listen and charge WO using BT sucks hard. I hate bluetooth. Security hole laden, buggy, powersucking piece of shit.

Shit like that is why anyone of note gets just a first name appended with “from Tinder” in my address book. Phones are way too hackable.

I also put the actual Tinder people in that way, so good luck to any hacker figuring out which is which since I’ve met people from IRL on Tinder and run into Tinder people IRL.



Apps for contact tracing will be completely useless. Here’s Bruce Schneier with an explanation why that’s not even a technical problem:


Schneier’s arguments make no sense to me, except as counter-arguments to the naive idea that an app will stop a pandemic at its height.

He assumes that a high false-negative rate will render a contact-tracing app useless. I don’t understand that. A high false-negative rate reduces its effectiveness, but but why should it not contribute to reducing transmissions overall? No single sustainable measure works on its own.

And he seems worried about a false-positive rate. There are two kinds of false-positives that need to be considered:

  1. people fraudulently trigger a warning.
  2. superficial contacts, contacts with sufficient protection being recorded as contacts.

Number one is a matter of checking for proof before triggering a warning. And I don’t see why one should worry about 2. After a sufficiently long and hard lockdown, actual cases are rare, the challenge is to keep them that way while resuming economic activities. If for every infection, 3 times as many people as necessary get notified, who cares?

The app can’t tell you have been infected, and can’t tell you’re safe. So it’s like all the other measures we took: it sounds plausible to the lay person that it will achieve something, and it has massive side-effects. We don’t define a clear success criteria and evaluate each measure, to figure out what really works and stop the rest to avoid any unintended consequences.

Of course. Those apps aren’t intended to tell you that you have been infected. And they aren’t intended to tell you that you’re safe. That much should be obvious.
And yes, so it’s like all the other measures we took. It helps reduce the spread, to a degree which is hard to predict.

So about the costs/side-effects?

If we’re talking about mandatory apps, then the general loss of freedom inherent in that is most likely not worth the effect, and if there is reason to ‘resist’, that will decrease efficiency anyway.

I’m talking about voluntary, anonymous apps with decentralized data storage. The only ‘cost’ I’m aware of so far is reduced battery life.

And I’m not sure it is possible to “define a clear success criteria and evaluate each measure”… how can one evaluate to what extent the favorable development of the numbers that I’m enjoying here in Austria is due to which of the measures we’ve been taking?

What’s happening now is that sensible governments are throwing a whole bunch of measures at the thing, then evaluating how well the bundle of measures is working. And if they are working well enough, the most expensive/damaging measures are discontinued. Wait a week or two, open up a bit more if everything is still going well.

So let’s just do stuff that sounds reasonable, accept unintended consequences, and begone, science and evidence based policies?

Of course it’s not simple, but nevertheless we need to try very hard to achieve that. I assume the main reason why we don’t do it is that with evaluation comes accountability and transparency. So one can’t throw around bold authoritarian policies anymore.

That in NOT a sensible approach, but a terribly ignorant one.

Oh, it’s not working well enough, do we need to do more of the same, or something new? I know, let’s do both, just for good measure.

Oh, it’s working much better than necessary to flatten the curve, which of the measures that disproportionately affect marginalized people can we ease a little?

Who knows, what we do now might make even matters worse in the near future. Like mandatory bike helmets reduced public health overall, because less people used bikes and had health effects from that. Keep people indoors and their immune system weakens, and they have less Vitamin D (one potential aspect of seasonality of covid-19), not necessarily a good idea, especially for those with preexisting conditions. Or the health effects of poverty, which skyrockets as consequence of some measures.

We. Need. To. Evaluate. Everything. Individually.

And that means also: design measures so they are actually testable. Any scientist worth their salt will tell you that.

It is a sensible approach in the face of ignorance.

Sure. Any idea how to do that? Maybe we should first evaluate whether adding more punctuation between words makes. it. possible. to. evaluate. everything. individually.

Right, because we are living in a laboratory. I assume you are happy with the area you are living in being the control group? We just need a few small countries/regions that are comparable in population, density, economics, and culture, and then we can try one intervention in each, and get individual results on each of the proposed measures. We will freeze time for the rest of the world while we wait for the results, so that we can then decide on what bundle of measures and non-measures is appropriate to minimize the impact of the pandemic.

Oh, we can’t freeze time for the rest of the world?

Okay, so until our carefully designed experiments yield validated results, what should we do?
Should we just pick an ideology and insist on following that until the “evidence” is in?
If your ideology is “Live Free or Die”, then that’s easy, just do nothing.
If your ideology is 100% authoritarianism, then it’s also easy, the Great Leader will just lock everything down, except for the “Thank you Great Leader” rally, because that is non-negotiable.

But what if you’re following some in-between ideology? What if you’re trying to be sensible?
Then you’ll default to taking some measures where the expected utility outweighs the expected costs, and then keep reevaluating. Without always getting nice and clean lab results on the individual policies.

Welcome to reality. It’s far more messy than your average lab. Any scientist worth his salt will tell you that.

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