Countries around the world are seeking a bargain with their citizens: a quicker return to normal life if they download a smartphone app
But experts warn even beyond the privacy issues, there are limits to the technology that prevent it being a cure-all for our coronavirus woes
While discussing the time frame for easing restrictions on everyday life during the coronavirus pandemic last month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison offered the public a deal.
The more people voluntarily downloaded a smartphone app designed to track the contacts of people infected, Morrison said, the sooner life could return to normal.
“I’ll be calling on Australians to do it as a matter of national service,” Morrison said. “In the same way people used to buy war bonds, back in the war times to come together to support the effort.”
As countries seek to safely ease lockdowns that have crippled economic and social life, authorities around the world are seeking to strike a bargain with their citizens: a quicker return to normal life in return for embracing smartphone apps that streamline the laborious business of contact tracing but raise questions about privacy and remain largely untested.
Australia launched COVIDSafe on Sunday, attracting more than 2 million downloads within 24 hours, after Singapore and Vietnam launched their own contact tracing apps.
Multiple US states, Japan, Britain, Germany and New Zealand – which on Tuesday eased its near-total lockdown after announcing the elimination of community transmission – are planning to roll out their own apps.
“Digital technologies are important for fast and efficient contact tracing – so are going to be very important for dealing with any border control failures if places such as New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan are able to successfully eliminate this pandemic virus,” said Nick Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Otago.
Although it has proved effective in controlling past epidemics, traditional contact tracing, which involves public health officials working phones and knocking on doors to interview patients about their close contacts, becomes more difficult as the number of infections rises. Such an approach is also limited by the tendency of people to fail to recall or misremember precise details about even recent interactions.
Contact tracing apps such as Australia’s COVIDSafe do not log a user’s location or even necessarily their real name, instead using Bluetooth technology to exchange a “digital handshake” between users once they come into proximity. When a user of the app tests positive for the virus, authorities can quickly refer to a record of each interaction stored on the app to trace the patient’s close contacts during the recent past.
“Replacing contact bans with contact tracing could enable us to contain the spread of the virus and at the same time regain some of the beloved freedoms that we had to limit these past few months,” said Ulf Buermeyer, president of the Society for Civil Rights in Germany. “From a perspective of fundamental and human rights, tracing high-risk contacts in this fashion constitutes a milder intervention than a turn to what can be described as Europe’s ‘Plan B’: not being able to freely visit your loved ones, practise your religion and profession or attend political assemblies.”
To work effectively, the apps need large uptake by the public. The Australian government has estimated that at least 40 per cent of the population needs to use the app for it to be effective, while experts in the UK have estimated that uptake there would need to be at least 60 per cent.
Last month, Australia’s Morrison declined to be drawn on whether the app could be made mandatory if too few people used it, saying only it was his preference to “give Australians the go at getting it right”.
Public buy-in so far has been mixed.
Singapore’s app, TraceTogether, has been downloaded by less than 20 per cent of the public since its launch on March 20 – and almost all of its users signed on in the first fortnight after its release.
Office manager Vincent Lim, 64, said he had declined to download the app out of concern for an “intrusion of privacy, that my location could be traced even after the coronavirus. How would I know that my location can’t be traced?”
Australia’s early uptake – about 2.8 million downloads as of Wednesday – appears more promising, although millions more Australians must still download the app for the government to reach its target.
“It will be extremely challenging for countries to get enough people to use these apps without either forcing them or using incentives tied to the removal of Covid lockdown measures for individual users,” said James Crabtree, an associate professor of practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Even without the use of intrusive GPS data, privacy has been a concern, particularly in Australia and European countries such as Germany, which recently abandoned plans to funnel data from its app into a centralised database amid a public outcry.
To allay such concerns, the Australian and German governments have developed apps that initially store data on the phone itself. The Australian government has insisted health authorities will only be able to upload encrypted information from the app to a database for analysis with the user’s permission and that law enforcement and other agencies will not be granted any access whatsoever.
Robert Merkel, a lecturer at the Clayton School of Information Technology, Monash University, said such a system still ultimately meant trusting the government with the keys to unlock the temporary IDs generated by the app after information had been handed over.
“Whether these constitute major privacy concerns depends very much on context,” said Merkel. “For many people, these issues may be of little concern.”
“My view on the Australian and Singaporean ones, which are very similar, is that the privacy protections are OK, they could be improved.”