Our smartphones could be automatically tracking us by Christmas.
The Ministry of Health is now in the final stages of getting Apple and Google's jointly-developed, Bluetooth-based contact-tracking system working with the government's official app.
"The Ministry has been trialling the Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework with a view to incorporating it within the NZ Covid Tracer app. If final approval is given, Bluetooth tracing could be added to the app as soon as next month," a Ministry of Health spokesman told the Herald.
"It will also be important for New Zealanders to continue scanning the QR codes wherever they see them. QR codes allow app users to create a private record of the places they've been, while Bluetooth tracing would create an anonymised record of the people they've seen. Both of these are valuable for contact tracing," the MoH spokesman said.
MoH data indicates that some kind of automated tracking is needed.
On Saturday, only 344,288 members of our Team of Five Million used the NZ Covid Tracer App, scanning a total of 650,868 QR code posters.
On Thursday and Friday, with the Vincent St scare, and a full-court press of politicians, experts and social media encouraging people to scan, numbers were better. On Friday, for example, there were 1.2m scans via 509,780 active app users. But that's still only around 10 per cent of us.
The Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework uses your phone's Bluetooth wireless radio (usually deployed for the likes of connecting to wireless headphones) to automatically record close contacts of more than a few minutes duration with other smartphone users (or at least those with Apple/Google exposure notifications enabled).
It was jointly developed by Apple and Google (whose Android software runs nearly every non-Apple phone) because attempts by third-parties to created smartphone tracking were pretty limited. People forgot to keep them on, or they were inadvertently disabled.
If you choose to turn it on (and Apple users who have upgraded to iOS 13 or 14* will see a new Exposure Notifications option) under Settings, the Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework will always run in the background.
If you report that you've had a positive test, then the Ministry of Health, through its NZ Covid Tracer App, will alert people you've been in proximity with, according to data collected by Apple and Google. Your identity is not revealed in this process. Data is encrypted, and dumped after 28 days.
If the Ministry of Health does flick the switch, the Apple-Google solution won't be a perfect record of everyone you come in contact with. Not everyone will switch it on. And, because it's technically tricky, some contacts will not be recorded in any case.
And you'll still need to whip out your phone to scan posters to record the places you've visited.
Still, Apple and Google's automated contact-tracing will be a useful addition to the ministry's toolbox.
It will speed contact tracing - especially in the event of a large outbreak, where manual systems can be overwhelmed - and it can fill in some of the blanks left by fallible human memory.
In another positive development, Wellington software developer Paper Kite is experimenting with an automated check-in technology.
Paper Kite was the maker of one of the first third-party check-in apps, Rippl, which can now share contact-tracing information with the government's NZ Covid Tracer app.
It's now experimenting with Bluetooth beacons - small transmitters about the size of an egg that can be placed at the door of cafe or shop.
The idea is that instead of having to scan a poster at the entrance, a shop's Bluetooth beacon will beam a signal to your phone, automatically checking you in.
Low-cost Bluetooth beacons were developed a few years ago as a spammy marketing tool. The idea was that if you, say, walked past a Starbucks, a beacon could beam a promotional voucher to your phone. Unsurprisingly, it died a quick death on that front.
But for automated check-ins, it suddenly makes a lot of sense.
"We're running a couple of small trials that use a Bluetooth beacon to broadcast a site or venue QR code and have Rippl pick that up and allow the user to confirm auto check-in next time Rippl 'hears/sees the beacon," Paper Kite chief executive Antony Dixon says.
The technology is up and running at his company's office, and two nearby hospo outfits.
Paper Kite is liaising closely with the Ministry of Health, so watch for an announcement on this front too.
CovidCard trial update
Meanwhile, despite founder Sam Morgan writing it off in a huff, the CovidCard is inching toward public release.
By always running in the background, the Apple/Google contact tracing system solves many of the problems with Bluetooth-based tracking.
But there's another issue. There are many different makes and models of smartphone out there. Some with older versions of Bluetooth, and some with newer, and some with strong Bluetooth signals and some weaker. The upshot is that it's tricky to record every close contact. It gets worse when some people have their phone buried in a pocket or handbag.
To get around this problem, a group led by Morgan developed a prototype CovidCard earlier this year. It's designed to be worn around your neck on a lanyard.
Morgan's idea was that for around $100 million, most of use could be issued with a CovidCard - each with the same Bluetooth standard, dramatically simplifying the process of automated contact-tracing. If you have a positive test, a health profession downloads the (anonymised) contact data from your card.
There was a public-private CovidCard trial at Nelson Hospital earlier this year, with Morgan and Co teaming up with the local DHB.
The Trade Me founder became disillusion with what he saw as the government's failure to fast-track deployment, with a proposed Rotorua trial nothing more than a political sop, in his view.
But (then) Communications Minister Kris Faafoi said before the election that his advice was a CovidCard rollout would cost hundreds of millions more than its initial budget. The Rotorua trial - involving between 500 and 1500 people - was needed to further test the technology, and gauge its degree of public acceptance.
Recruitment began on October 29 and the live trial started on November 9.
So how is it going?
"There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the community trial of the proposed contact tracing card. Te Arawa Covid-19 Response Hub, in partnership with MoH, has been managing all the on-the-ground aspects and has recruited more than 1200 participants from the Ngongotahā community, which is around half the eligible population," the Ministry of Health spokesman said.
"The data collection phase runs until Sunday, November 15. Exit interviews will then be carried out, and the card data for a sample of participants will be compared with manual contact tracing information.
"This will provide insights into how the cards perform in a real-world scenario, whether people will accept and use them, and how they could best support contact tracing."
"Decisions on any wider roll-out of the cards could be made before the end of 2020."
Morgan might roll his eyes at that schedule, but it seems things are moving along, to a fashion.
In the meantime, Singapore - which earlier added an inhouse-developed Bluetooth tracking to its official smartphone tracing app - has now started distributing Bluetooth dongles, worn around the neck, to all of its citizens.
Its government's line is that while smartphone-based Bluetooth was reasonably successful, some citizens - especially the elderly and some immigrants - did not have smartphones, or at least used them as "dumbphones" for calling and txt only.