“More than 600,000 people have been told to isolate by the NHS covid-19 app across the week of July 8 in England and Wales,” she says, “but that’s only a little more than double the number of new positive cases in the same period. While we had concerns about the justification for the contact tracing app, criticizing it for the ‘pingdemic’ is misplaced: the app is essentially working as it always has been.”
Christophe Fraser, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute who has done the most prominent studies on the effectiveness of the app, says that while it is functioning as designed, there’s another problem: a significant breakdown in the social contract. “People can see, on TV, there are raves and nightclubs going on. Why am I being told to stay home? Which is a fair point, to be honest,” he says.
It’s this lack of clear, fair rules, he says, that is leading to widespread frustration as people are told to self-isolate. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, public health technology is deeply intertwined with everything around it—the way it’s marketed, the way it’s talked about in the media, the way it’s discussed by your physician, the way it’s supported (or not) by lawmakers.
“People do want to do the right thing,” Fraser says. “They need to be met halfway.”
How we got here
Exposure notification apps are a digital public health tactic pioneered during the pandemic—and they’ve already weathered a lot of criticism from those who say that they didn’t get enough use. Dozens of countries built apps to alert users to covid exposure, sharing code and using a framework developed jointly by Google and Apple. But amid criticism over privacy worries and tech glitches, detractors charged that the apps had launched too late in the pandemic—at a time when case numbers were too high for tech to turn back the tide.
So shouldn’t this moment in the UK—when technical glitches have been ironed out, when adoption is high, and with a new wave spiking—be the right time for its app to make a real difference?
Not if people don’t voluntarily follow the instructions to isolate, says Jenny Wanger, who leads covid-related tech initiatives for Linux Foundation Public Health.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, “the tech is not usually a challenge,” she says. “The science is not as much of a challenge … we know, at this point, how covid transmission works. The challenge comes around the behavior. The hardest parts of the system are the parts where you need to convince people to do something—of course, based on best practices.”
Oxford’s Fraser says that he thinks about it in terms of incentives. For the average person, he says, the incentives for adhering to the rules of contact tracing—digital or otherwise—don’t always add up.
If the result of using the app is that “you end up being quarantined but your neighbor who hasn’t installed the app doesn’t get quarantined,” he says, “that doesn’t necessarily feel fair, right?”
2021 has broken the record for zero-day hacking attacks
“Part of the reason you’re seeing more now is because we’re finding more,” says Microsoft’s Doerr. “We’re better at shining a spotlight. Now you can learn from what’s happening at all your customers, which helps you get smarter faster. In the bad situation where you see something new, that will impact one customer instead of 10,000.”
The reality is a lot messier than the theory, however. Earlier this year, multiple hacking groups launched offensives against Microsoft Exchange email servers. What started as a critical zero-day attack briefly became even worse in the period after a fix became available but before it was actually applied to users. That gap is a sweet spot hackers love to hit.
As a rule, however, Doerr is spot on.
Exploits are getting harder—and more valuable
Even if zero-days are being seen more than ever, there is one fact that all the experts agree on: they are getting harder and more expensive to pull off.
Better defenses and more complicated systems mean hackers have to do more work to break into a target than they did a decade ago—attacks are costlier and require more resources. The payoff, however, is that with so many companies operating in the cloud, a vulnerability can open millions of customers up to attack.
“Ten years ago, when everything was on premises, a lot of the attacks only one company would see,” says Doerr, “and few companies were equipped to understand what was going on.”
Faced with improving defenses, hackers often must link together multiple exploits instead of using just one. These “exploit chains” require more zero-days. Success at spotting these chains is also part of the reason for the steep rise in numbers.
Today, says Dowd, attackers are “having to invest more and risk more by having these chains to achieve their goals.”
One important signal comes from the rising cost of the most valuable exploits. The limited data available, such as Zerodium’s public zero-day prices, shows as much as a 1,150% rise in the cost of the highest-end hacks over the last three years.
But even if zero-day attacks are harder, the demand has risen, and supply follows. The sky might not be falling—but neither is it a perfectly sunny day.
How these US schools reopened without sparking a covid outbreak
“Cleaning high-touch areas is very important in schools,” Cogan said. But mask-wearing, physical distancing, vaccinations, and other measures are “higher protective factors.”
8. Give agency to parents and teachers in protecting their kids.
Last school year, many districts used temperature checks and symptom screenings as an attempt to catch infected students before they gave the coronavirus to others. But in Austin, Indiana, such formalized screenings proved less useful than teachers’ and parents’ intuition. Instructors could identify when a student wasn’t feeling well and ask them to go see the nurse, even if that student passed a temperature check.
Jetelina said that teachers and parents can both act as a layer of protection, stopping a sick child from entering the classroom. “Parents are pretty good at understanding the symptoms of their kids and the health of their kids,” she said.
In Andrews, Texas, district administrators provided parents with information on covid symptoms and entrusted those parents to determine when a child may need to stay home from school. The Texas district may have “gone way overboard with giving parents agency,” though, Cogan said, in allowing students to opt out of quarantines and mask-wearing—echoing concerns from the Andrews County public health department.
9. We need more granular data to drive school policies.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve consistently called out a lack of detailed public data on covid-19 cases in schools. The federal government still does not provide such data, and most states offer scattered numbers that don’t provide crucial context for cases (such as in-person enrollment or testing figures). Without these numbers, it is difficult to compare school districts and identify success stories.
My research on school reopenings illuminated another data issue: most states are not providing any covid-19 metrics down to the individual district, making it hard for school leaders to know when they must tighten down on or loosen safety protocols. At the tiny Port Orford–Langlois district in Oregon, for example, administrators had to rely on covid-19 numbers for their overall county. Even though the district had zero cases in fall 2020, it wasn’t able to bring older students back in person until the spring because outbreaks in another part of the county drove up case numbers. Cogan has observed similar issues in New Jersey.
At a local level, school districts may work with their local public health departments to get the data they need for more informed decision-making, Jetelina said. But at a larger, systemic level, getting granular covid-19 data is more difficult—a job for the federal government.
10. Invest in school staff and invite their contributions to safety strategies.
School staff described working long hours, familiarizing themselves with the science of covid-19, and exercising immense determination and creativity to provide their students with a decent school experience. Teaching is typically a challenging job, but in the last 18 months, it has become heroic—even though many people outside school environments take this work for granted, Jetelina said.
Districts can thank their staff by giving them a say in school safety decisions, Cogan recommended. “Educators—they’ve had a God-awful time and had a lot more put on them,” she said. But “every single person that works in a school has as well.” That includes custodians, cafeteria workers, and—crucially—school nurses, who Cogan calls the “chief wellness officers” of the school.
11. Allow students and staff the space to process pandemic hardship.
About 117,000 children in the US have lost one or both parents during the pandemic, according to research from Imperial College London. Thousands more have lost other relatives, mentors, and friends—while millions of children have faced job loss in their families, food and housing insecurity, and other hardships. Even if a school district has all the right safety logistics, school staff cannot truly support students unless they allow time and space to process the trauma that they’ve faced.
P.S. 705 in Brooklyn may serve as a model for this practice. School staff preemptively reached out to families when a student missed class, offering support: “705 is just the kind of place where it is a ‘wrap your arms around the whole family’ kind of a school,” one parent said.
On the first day of school in September 2021—when many students returned in person for the first time since spring 2020—the school held a moment of silence for loved ones that the school community has lost.
New challenges ahead
These lessons are drawn from school communities that were successful in the 2020-2021 school year, before the delta variant hit the US. This highly transmissible strain of the virus poses new challenges for the fall 2021 semester. The data analysis underlying this project led me to profile primarily rural communities, which may have gotten lucky with low covid-19 case numbers in previous phases of the pandemic—but are now unable to escape delta. For example, the Oregon county including Port Orford–Langlois saw its highest case rates yet in August 2021.
The delta challenge is multiplied by increasing polarization over masks, vaccines, and other safety measures. Still, Jetelina pointed out that there are also “a ton of champions out there,” referring to parents, teachers, public health experts, and others who continue to learn from past school reopening experiences—and advocate for their communities to do a better job.
The Solutions Journalism Network supported this project with a reporting grant, as well as trainings and other guidance. Learn more about the five school communities I profiled in this project for the COVID-19 Data Dispatch.
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.
US unfairly targeting Chinese over industrial spying, says report
For years, civil rights groups have accused the US Department of Justice of racial profiling against scientists of Chinese descent. Today, a new report provides data that may quantify some of their claims.
The study, published by the Committee of 100, an association of prominent Chinese-American civic leaders, found that individuals of Chinese heritage were more likely than others to be charged under the Economic Espionage Act—and significantly less likely to be convicted.
“The basic question that this study tries to answer is whether Asian-Americans are treated differently with respect to suspicions of espionage,” said the report’s author, Andrew C. Kim, a lawyer and visiting scholar at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “The answer to that question is yes. “
The study, which looked at data from economic espionage cases brought by the US from 1996 to 2020, found that just under half of all defendants were accused of stealing secrets that would benefit China. This is far lower than the figures laid out by US officials to justify the Department of Justice’s flagship China Initiative.
According to the report, 46% of defendants charged under the Economic Espionage Act were accused of activity that would benefit Chinese people or entities, while 42% of defendants were accused of stealing secrets that would benefit American businesses.
The numbers directly contradict much of the Justice Department’s messaging around the China Initiative, which was launched in 2018 to combat economic espionage. The department has stated publicly—for example, in the first line of its home page for the China Initiative—that 80% of its prosecutions would benefit the Chinese state, reflecting “theft on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history,” as FBI director Christopher Wray described it in 2020.
Since 2019, the program has largely targeted academic researchers.
“Strong evidence of charges with less evidence”
The report was based on an analysis of public court filings, as well as Department of Justice press releases, for all Economic Espionage Act prosecutions between 1996 and 2020. It’s an update of an earlier analysis, published in the Cardozo Law Review, which covered the period up to 2016.
Charges for “theft of trade secrets” and “economic espionage” were both included, with the “economic espionage” charge requiring proof of a “nexus to foreign entity” and accompanied by higher penalties. (These two categories make up only a portion of the charges under the China Initiative; Kim briefly mentions “false statements and process crimes,” and people have also been charged with grant fraud and lying on visa applications, among other crimes.)
Because demographic information and citizenship data is not included in court filings, Kim used names as proxies for race, and he used Google searches when names, like Lee and Park, were ethnically ambiguous. For citizenship, Kim noted that press releases often make prominent mention if a defendant is a “foreign national,” so he assumed that defendants were all citizens unless otherwise indicated.