Contact-Tracing Apps: Hit or Miss?

We are now well into the second half of the summer season and it has been months since the novel coronavirus initially spread from Wuhan, China to almost every country in the world. There is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19 at present, and that is why governments have been taking such extreme measures, enabling whole economies and people’s livelihoods to collapse, as the incredibly contractible virus continues to spread among communities.  

There have been many discussions as to how and when this global health and economic crisis might end. With over half of the year 2020 now behind us, and with cases rising again after an initial flattening of the curve, concerns surrounding herd immunity, and no current vaccine, some governments have turned to technology to assist efforts in containing the pandemic. Mobile contact-tracing apps, launched in some places around the world, are meant to track when users have been in close proximity to a COVID-positive person, and alert affected users when a positive case of the virus is confirmed. In order for these apps to be effective, they need to be nearly universally adopted, which is why, in many countries, they haven’t taken off as well as was initially hoped.

Europe has taken the lead in the launching of apps to track COVID-19 with more than twenty countries and territories having launched or in the planning process for smartphone apps to track the virus. Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Gibraltar, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Switzerland have all launched contact-tracing apps via Google Play and the App Store.

The UK, so far, has failed to deploy a working COVID-19 track and trace app. The British government initially said a digital contact tracing app would be crucial in order to keep people safe and for restrictions to be eased, but thus far remain reliant on human contact-tracers to track the spread of the virus.  With the UK, and many other European country’s failures to develop a national app, along with France and Hungary launching a different type of app that stores information on a central server with privacy concerns, it remains difficult to make all of the apps work seamlessly across Europe as borders begin to reopen and people begin to travel again.

Tracking apps to fight the pandemic have been used in China, Singapore, South Korea, Israel, and others, not without critiques for intruding on people’s privacy. Government’s behind many of the questionably ‘safe’ apps have said that any data that is collected is used legally for encrypted COVID-19 control only, and that it will be deleted once the pandemic is under control. 

The United States has stalled in its efforts to use contact-tracing phone apps on a national level because of  public concerns with government or private companies gaining access to people’s personal data. Experts have said that unless the unease people feel about the use of contact-tracing apps is dispelled, they will not be successfully introduced in the battle to stop the spread of COVID-19. A study by Pew Research in 2019 shows that only 53% of Americans over the age of sixty-five have a smartphone, which is a requirement for apps to function. Some experts believe that if local governments established their own contact-tracing app for use at state-level, Americans might change their minds on privacy fears. 

In terms of releasing a contact-tracing app at the state level in the United States, Virginia has become the first state to debut a contact-tracing app using Apple and Google API. Virginia’s COVIDWISE app is the first of its kind in the US, with Alabama, North Dakota, and South Carolina in line to sign on to form their own similar app using the same technology. The Virginia Department of Health says that privacy is at the forefront of the Exposure Notification API, which is used on the app, and that strict privacy requirements are adhered to at all times through its use. North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming have all previously introduced apps based on GPS, rather than Apple and Google API, but none of them have been widely adapted.

It is without doubt that there have been problems involved with contact-tracing apps in various countries around the world but they have also helped, in some way, in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Many remain concerned about privacy-related matters but time will give us clarity on the great contact-tracing app mystery as to where these apps succeeded and where they failed to take off.