Lots of people have had a swing a Sam Morgan's Covid Card. Below, the entrepreneur deals with objections, blow by blow. But first, a quick recap of where our Government's tracing effort is at now, in technology terms.
The Government's NZ Covid Tracer app is, so far, a bust.
Only 590,000 or 11.7 per cent of the population have downloaded it, and a bare 0.2 per cent are using it to scan posters.
Of course, we're now in the relative calm of level 1, but even in the throes of level 2 usage was minimal - as it has been overseas, even in compliant Singapore.
In its initial version, the NZ Covid Tracer app is quite limited. You can download it to your Apple or Android phones, then use it to create a personal "digital diary" of places where you've been by scanning QR code posters as you enter various supermarkets, restaurants and other premises (as long as they've got MBIE's official QR code posters up - one of a number of points of confusion).
There's no way to automatically share your location history with health authorities if you become infected, although you can open your profile on your phone when a government tracing agent calls, and talk them through it [UPDATE: Exposure notification and sending data to the Ministry of Heath are now part of the app.]
And unlike apps in Singapore and Australia, there's no feature to utilise your smartphone's Bluetooth wireless functionality to record your proximity to others.
The Covid Card alternative
Enter Trade Me founder Sam Morgan, the public front for a group which includes Navman founder Sir Peter Maire, which says it has developed and tested a practical, workable alternative: a "Covid Card" - the size of your office swipe card, and about three times as thick, and worn around your neck on a lanyard (a pocket or purse would hinder transmission).
Morgan - who teamed with Sir Stephen Tindall, the Mowbray siblings and Rob Fyfe to import millions of dollars worth of PPE for health workers early in the pandemic crisis - says that for $100 million (or around $20 per person), we could all be issued with a Covid Card within five months.
The entrepreneur says a smartphone approach disadvantages some people. "There is no consideration of equity. The poor, Maori, Pasifika and migrant communities," he says,
"Do you really think these communities will use an app? The Government only got 65 per cent of Maori and Pasifika people to do the Census. The next outbreak will arise in these communities, in all likelihood."
Morgan doesn't see tracing apps ever coming up to snuff, in terms of widespread adoption or technical effectiveness.
And he sees the Government's human tracing staff being overwhelmed by an outbreak of community transmission.
His Covid Card does feature Bluetooth. It detects and records close contacts using the wireless technology and stores this data securely on a person's card for 21 days.
No contact data is automatically stored in the cloud or elsewhere and it does not track user location as the card does not contain GPS capability.
If you do become infected, then a health professional will download the data from your Covid Card, and its Bluetooth-powered record of the other Covid Card users you've been in close proximity with for an extended amount of time.
'Don't spend $100m on an experiment'
Wellington's Paperkite was one of the first into the tracing game with its Rppl app, which
has now clocked more than 70,000 downloads locally, with more pending in the UK where it has just been launched as "Stay Safe Diary" (Rippl was already taken by a water company).
CEO Anthony Dixon says he doesn't see tracing as an "all or nothing" fight between competing technologies, but adds, "I wouldn't spend $100m on an experiment."
He would like to see a "closed-loop" Covid Card trial before wider adoption. And, long-term, he sees any Covid Card as best-suited for use where people are gathered in high concentration. At a concert with 30,000 people, for example, each could be issued with a Covid Card when they arrive.
Morgan says you would need high adoption to get a good handle on whom those 30,000 people at Dixon's concert came into contact with once back out in the world.
"On percentages, the function is quadratic. If you double users, you multiply reach by four. Twenty per cent usage gives you just 4 per cent of contacts traced. Forty per cent gives you 16 per cent. Eighty per cent usage gives you 64 per cent of contacts," the Covid Card advocate says.
"This is the fundamental problem facing any peer-to-peer contact tracing solution - you need to get very high levels of adoption," he adds.
And as for the $100m price tag? Morgan says the cost needs to be seen in context. It seems like a lot, but it is only two days' spending in NZ health budget terms, he says. Overall, the Government is spending some $50 billion on its coronavirus response. And then, of course, the Covid Card could prevent NZ from having to return to a level 4 lockdown, with the devastating costs that would entail.
Can people be compelled to wear a Covid Card around their neck?
As Morgan conceded above, a Covid Card (like an app) would need a high level of adoption - around 80 per cent - to be effective.
"Even under the conditions of community transmission and increased community angst, you would likely need strong encouragement to wear it in places of risk," Morgan says.
"Whether this stretches to mandating in, say, pubs, is a policy decision above my pay-grade."
Unlike an app on a phone, it's immediately obvious if someone is, or isn't wearing a card on a lanyard around their neck, on level making it easy to police.
Victoria University School of Engineering and Computer Science senior lecturer Dr Simon McCallum doubts that compulsory use of a Covid Card (or any tracing measure) would be possible. Even if, for example, the Government said you couldn't enter a supermarket or dairy without a Covid Card, "Some communities just don't trust the government". He sees dairies being open to cash-only sales, and black markets developing.
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards hasn't taken a pro or anti position on Morgan and co's Covid Card project, but says at this point in time "their business case raises many more questions than it answers".
"What happens when people lose their card? Are they condemned to social and commercial exclusion until a replacement can be issued? Or will they borrow someone else's? Will a black market in counterfeit Covid Cards develop for those who don't wish to or can't use the real thing?" he says.
And he also sees cultural barriers. Many New Zealanders would be uncomfortable having to carry a mandated piece of hardware that records all their contacts for the Government, Edwards says.
"This would be a significant legal and cultural change for New Zealand society. The only current obligation to carry any kind of government-mandated card in public is the obligation to carry a driver's licence while driving," he says.
"And what happens when you've left your card in your other jacket when you go to the supermarket or restaurant?
"Will cash-strapped small businesses really exclude paying customers when there is no evidence of community spread of the disease, just because they do not have their Covid Card?"
In the interests of promoting good public health, this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we're offering a 10% discount on tap beer to anyone that checks in here using @Rippl_NZ or Tracer.— Hashigo Zake (@HashigoZake) July 20, 2020
PaperKite's Dixon says a bit of carrot (or at least booze) can be used along with the stick - such as a recent promotion by a bar in the capital that offered a 10 per cent discount on tap beer for punters who used Ripple or the NZ Covid Tracer app.
We've already been compelled
"Clearly it is not desirable to have Government tell you what to do," Morgan says.
But he adds that when push comes to shove, there's ample evidence it can be done.
"They make all of us carry a driver's licence," he says.
"They made us all stay inside for six weeks."
He points out that in Victoria, wearing a mask in public is now mandatory (since midnight on Wednesday, leaving your mask at home attracts a A$200 fine).
And as for lost cards?
"Presently, as a society, we manage with edge cases such as when you forget your driver's license or the glasses you need to drive, if you forget your wallet when you go to the restaurant, you forget your bike helmet when riding your bike, you lose your credit card, forget you age ID when buying booze, etc," Morgan says.
"These don't appear to be insurmountable issues and formal and informal conventions will arise around these cases. We don't need 100 per cent usage 100 per cent of the time for it to achieve the aims.
"Losing cards is common with any card scheme, to the tune of 20 to 30 per cent of all cards lost per year and you need to deal with that by making it easy to get a replacement - from a Post Office or over the counter at a bank or at The Warehouse. Distribution channels are an important part of the overall system."
Does airborne transmission render Bluetooth useless?
McCallum agrees with Morgan & Co's estimate that a Covid Card and its first year of operation could be delivered for $100m, given it's using commodity parts, and not trying to invent any new technology.
And he acknowledges that it would help to have a single device, using a single Bluetooth standard, with Bluetooth always on (the multiple problems with Bluetooth tracking apps on cellphones include that different makes and models of phones use different versions of Bluetooth, at different signal strengths - and that, especially with the iPhone, a tracking app has to be started then left on - but a user can forget, or their phone can automatically switch off Bluetooth when its battery gets low).
McCallum - who has at times joined Ministry of Health discussions on tracking solutions - says he sees an "eco-system' of different tracking solutions,
And while McCallum acknowledges a Covid Card would deliver always-on, consistent signal strength Bluetooth, he says there could still be false positives (person A stands next to person B, but with a screen in the way) or missed contact (person A sneezes. then person B arrives a few minutes later and walks into their molecules after person A and their Covid Card are long gone.
McCallum says there's research that suggests Covid-19 could be airborne, in certain conditions, for up to seven or eight minutes. "But it's so new, we really don't know." The initial indications were negative, but now evidence for airborne Covid-19 is mounting, according to a recent roundup in Nature.
"We don't purport to have a solution for his creative scenario involving the sneeze."
Hardware can't be updated
Edwards says there are also considerable logistical obstacles to ensuring that the cards went to every adult.
"We do not have a population register in New Zealand. Probably the closest and most accurate record of individuals is maintained by Inland Revenue, but even IRD struggles to maintain up-to-date address details," he says.
While smartphone apps can be updated and improved in realtime, a CovidCard would not be able to be adapted or improved once it was issued.
"We would be stuck with it for a year with no ability to adapt or change or learn from the experience of other countries, or of how the card operates in New Zealand," he says.
Thinking around hardware-based solutions "predated the unprecedented joint Apple/Google exposure notification system that is being trialled by some countries. Software solutions to assist with contact tracing can iterate and improve as we understand their strengths and weaknesses,' Edwards says.
Morgan concedes that a Covid Card had baked-in technology for a year, but adds that a lot of the number-crunching would happen on servers after data was downloaded from cards. So algorithms could be changed on the server-side if, say, it was decided that data about contacts with 1m for five minutes should be analysed.
And, in his mind, smartphone tracing apps' ability to be upgraded is moot, since so few install them and they just don't work.
A lot of work, and cost, for a small privacy concern
Apple and Google's joint effort to create a Covid-tracing solution is an interesting one. It works under the bonnet - eliminating the troublesome need to keep an up in the foreground all the time - and it utilises the Apple iOS and Google Android mapping and tracking technology that already exists on every smartphone, using an API (applications programming interface) to talk to tracking apps (our Ministry of Health is still accessing its NZ Covid Tracer app should hook in).
While it's a technically easy solution to have Apple Maps and Google Maps track your every step, and interaction, it's also something that will give some people the heebeejeebees.
McCallum isn't one of them.
The Victoria academic says he'll happily share his location data with Apple Google if it will keep him safe from Covid.
And, in fact, in everyday life he's happy to trade his privacy for the convenience that comes from smartphone location tools. The prospective Labour Party candidate even shares his location in real-time with his partner, via his smartphone (reducing the odds an Iain Lees-Galloway scenario).
And at one point he shared his location in real-time with his students.
McCallum admits most people are quite so open, but adds that around 80 per cent of us overshare on Facebook.
He estimates that only around 5 per cent of people are hardcore about privacy. The Covid Card is good at safeguarding anonymity, but "it's a lot of work and lot of money to solve a small problem."
Morgan says the Covid Card will keep data private. The GCSB and Ministry of Defence were looped into its security planning.
But he says he was not driven primarily by whether a hardware solution or software solution had the best privacy, he adds.
Rather, he landed on the Covid Card after researching both, and coming to the conclusion that software apps simply didn't get results.
Privacy Act not enough
While the Privacy Act says data must be stored securely, and only used for the purpose that it was collected, Council for Civil Liberties chair Thomas Beagle says, "The Privacy Act has very significant carve-outs allowing release of data "to avoid prejudice to the maintenance of the law by any public sector agency, including prejudice to the prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution, and punishment of offences" or for "for the protection of public revenue".
Beagle says there would need to be companion legislation for a Covid Card, stating that police, security agencies and IRD could not access the data.
Morgan says: fair cop. He agrees.
Beagle, who works in healthcare software for his day job, says he is skeptical across the board about claims made for tracing tools.
He's not sure the Covid Card could get enough voluntary adoption to be effective and, if not, where that would lead.
"Any form of compulsion would [to wear a Covid Card] have to be carefully considered. While the pandemic has caused us to enact many measures which would be unthinkable otherwise, this doesn't mean that compulsion should be overused," he says.
Nelson hospital trial
"This isn't just a press release. Hundreds of pages of technical documentation have been shared with the Government. The solution works, Morgan says.
There was also a 50-person proof-of-concept trial at Nelson Hospital that saw Bluetooth Covid Cards compared to the performance of cards using ultra-wideband wireless (which is pinpoint accurate, if too expensive and mean on battery life for mass rollout).
"The purpose of the device is to capture clinically defined close contacts - 15 minutes of contact within a couple of metres. Achieving that is exactly what the purpose of our trials was seeking to test and we got very high confidence that in normal social settings with people moving around, etc, that it can do that to 90 per cent-plus confidence with around 10 per cent false positives. The received signal strength RSSI varies hugely but the card algorithms are designed for exactly that."
Morgan says he can't compare that to data from Bluetooth tracing apps on smartphones, because none have been done, but that preliminary testing indicates its dire. He ponts out that Singapore's government, which released the first Bluetooth smartphone app, TraceTogether, has now shifted its efforts to a Bluetooth dongle, worn around the neck.
Where to from here?
Is he seeing Government support? Morgan says there was "a lot of enthusiasm during level 4" for the Covid Card, but that it has fallen away in level 1. (Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made determinedly neutral comments, throughout. Recently she said the technical merits of the Covid Card were still being assessed, and that it was one of a number of options being looked at).
Morgan has had the chance to discuss the Covid Card, twice, with Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, whom he describes a "smart guy" but also paranoid about any stalking horse for any type of national security card.
That's a good paranoia to have, Morgan says, be he argues that in the case of the Covid Card, it's misplaced. After a year, a card's batteries die, and the card dies with it.
Elsewhere, he's less impressed with his Covid Card group's interaction with the bureaucracy.
"The Ministry of Health does not have deep technology capabilities and only a small team which is like any other Ministry," Morgan says.
"They're normally focussed on database integrations and other work of a more corporate nature.
"We've found them very insular and they have a very difficult culture to engage with.
"We've done this work ourselves with only light integration in MoH who believe their app is able to achieve something - this is not supported by even the most cursory research and certainly not by any rigorous investigations."
More broadly, Morgan says "No party is going to promote wearing a compulsory card around your neck as we approach an election during level one."
And he adds, "We are very aware that New Zealanders are less inclined to wear a 'silly card' when there is evidently no Covid here."
Edwards says, "No testing has been done to determine whether a widely diverse population will wear the card routinely in a compliant fashion."
But his gut instinct is that there would have to be a significant cultural shift.
What does Morgan think it would take?
"Body bags," he says.
"If you see bodies tacked up in refrigerated units, you'll change your mind about wearing a card to the supermarket."