The New United Nations Coronavirus Social Distancing App Doesn’t Even Work

On Wednesday the UN announced its app 1point5 to help people social distance. But it doesn’t perform the most basic of tasks.
April 30, 2020, 11:08pm
UN
Image: Apple/United Nations

This week a division of the United Nations announced its new social distancing app designed to help alert people when they get too close to another person during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Motherboard has found that the app, called 1point5, is barely functional, and an independent researcher highlighted how the app may be largely ineffective due to how it informs users when they are near any other device which uses Bluetooth, rather than only mobile phones, which a human is presumably carrying in their pocket.

The news highlights the haphazard roll-out of various different apps and technologies that are supposed to help during the pandemic, including those from governments.

"1point5 will measure distance to other phones and devices as long as the Bluetooth of those phones is turned on. Those other phones do not need to have the app installed for the app to detect their presence," the press release from the United Nations Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL), published Wednesday, reads.

When users download 1point5, the app is supposed to alert them when another Bluetooth device comes within 1.5 metres of their own phone, or a user can choose to increase the range slightly. The app is then supposed to display a message saying "Please keep your distance" if it detects other nearby devices.

But when Motherboard downloaded the app earlier this week before the UN's official announcement, the app didn't even successfully perform this most basic of actions. Motherboard tested the app on two separate Android devices, and held them next to other phones with Bluetooth enabled. The app did not detect any other devices in either test.

Multiple other users appear to have encountered the same issue, according to reviews left on the app's Google Play Store page.

"Waste of time.. This application is not working," one apparent user wrote.

"Waste app please don't download time wa[s]te," added another.

The app has another design flaw as well. Independent researcher and consultant Ashkan Soltani noticed the app's description says the software is designed to alert a user to the presence of any nearby Bluetooth device, rather than just phones. All sorts of gadgets use Bluetooth, from Playstations, to computers, to speakers, to smart home and internet of things devices.

"I get that an important part of pandemic response is to help individuals maintain awareness and vigilance in their social distancing efforts—but I'm not sure having your phone alert you anytime you pass by another Bluetooth signal is going to help much beyond annoying people; especially those in densely populated apartment buildings or workplaces," Soltani told Motherboard.

Earlier this month, security researcher and artist Claudio Guarnieri highlighted just how busy the Bluetooth space can be, by creating a website that essentially livestreams what a Bluetooth beacon physically located in Berlin encounters. Even though Guarnieri already filtered those results, the site still presented a flurry of Bluetooth activity.

Renato Cardoso, the person listed as the developer contact for the 1point5 app, told Motherboard on Wednesday in an email that, "The UN current version is detecting all kinds of bluetooth devices around you. We have tried to filter known devices, like computers, TVs and so on. On the next version you will ONLY detect other devices that has the app installed. We may let the user decide on that (as an option inside the app)."

LTO Network, a blockchain focused company, created the software, according to Andrew Maaldrink, a copywriter for the digital collective TBWA.

"1point5 is my brainchild," Maaldrink told Motherboard in an email on Wednesday.

When Motherboard first contacted a United Nations media representative on Wednesday to ask for comment on the app, Stephane Dujarric De La Riviere from the spokesperson's office replied in an email, "I’ve never heard of this app." They did not respond to follow-up emails asking to confirm if the app was an official product of the United Nations.

Soltani added, "The larger concern is also that this plethora of technical interventions serve to confused and distract people—ultimately reducing the success potential of the systems that eventually prove to be necessary and effective."

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