Contact Tracing & Ubiquitous Computing

If you would have told me in 1997, that giving everyone unfettered access to the world’s information would result in an erosion of public trust, we would have had a philosophical fight. Here we are in 2020 and I was wrong, but that is a conversation for another day.

However one of my favorite paradigms, Ubiquitous Computing, is finally starting to mature 3 decades later in ways we always expected. Mark Weiser coined the term ubiquitous computing in his 1991 paper, The Computer for the 21st Century and I was introduced to it while at Dartmouth (2002’ish) by Professor David Kotz. Weiser’s paper is a classic that is still relevant today. Ubiquitous Computing imagines a world where millions of computers are everywhere and embedded into the environment around us. Those devices can recognize us and then through automation and context computing manipulate the world around you and deliver you high value, contextual information.

At the time, we were thinking about smart dust painted on walls and public displays that you could just walk up to and use. We hadn’t considered 3.5 billion pocket computers with Hi-Rez personal displays. We discussed privacy in theoretical ways but there were few real world examples of digital privacy nightmares in 2002. Then as this new ubiquitous computing environment matured around us, it has been harnessed to create a literal world-changing, life saving app; Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing by Apple & Google.

Our devices (and advertisers) already know everywhere we’ve been, they should know about every other device we’ve come in contact with and importantly notify us if exposure to one of those devices has put our life in danger. This should be done in a privacy conscious way where your identity is protected, personal information is never shared with Governments or Corporations and all computation happens locally.

This is what Apple & Google have delivered on in a heroic effort that reminds me most of the stories I’ve read about U.S. companies rising to the challenge of World War 2.

Now if only we trusted each other. Perhaps we could agree that savings lives is a more important use case of our data than serving up ads.