Will a Contact Tracing App Save Lives?


New Problem, New Solution?

The world is at war with the coronavirus. While scientists, engineers, and governments scramble for ways to combat this invisible enemy, the economy is being devastated. And with fears that a second, deadlier wave of the virus may return in winter, action must be swift. 

Software developers and programmers are also working to flatten the curve, and they may have created a very effective tool to do so: contact-tracing apps. These apps allow those who may have been in contact with a COVID-19 carrier to be notified, so they can limit their own contact with others. Countries around the world are rolling out their own versions of this tech.

The Way It Works

The concept is quite simple yet ingenious. Smartphones with the app will use bluetooth technology to collect data from other smartphones that they are in close proximity with, performing a sort of ‘digital handshake’. This data is stored on the smartphone. When somebody is confirmed to have COVID-19, their smartphone sends a signal to all the phones it is connected with, alerting the users. 

A Disappointing Start

While the concept seems promising, the reception of the app has so far not been so encouraging.  According to Oxford researchers, the app needs to be downloaded by 60% of any given country in order to prove effective, and so far people aren’t taking to it easily.  In Iceland, 40%  of the population downloaded it since its launch in mid-April. In March, Singapore launched TraceTogether, yet so far only 25 percent use it. Meanwhile, India is one of the few democracies to make Contact Tracing mandatory. However, the ‘Aarogya Setu’ app has been adopted by less than 10% of the country’s whopping 1.3 billion. 

Scary Potential

Perhaps the reason behind the rather tepid reception are the rather ominous implications that such a technology has. For many, having our phone share data about our comings-and-goings feels too close to an Orwellian nightmare for comfort.  Professor John Cannataci, UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Privacy, has said:

“Unless they are deployed very carefully and within the tightest of constraints, they could be abused in order to introduce a level of surveillance which would make Orwell’s Big Brother look like a forgetful kindergarten assistant”. 

In response to such scepticism, EU countries have agreed to only allow a wide roll-out of such an app if it were voluntary, temporary, and did not store information about the location of users.  Google and Apple have partnered to assure users of their privacy, explaining that it can be turned off at any time, does not collect location data, and that access will only be granted to public health authorities.

Will it Save Us?

While contact tracing apps may not be the answer to all our problems, it’s still a relatively new thing for people to get used to.  With the UK’s NHS to launch their own version of the 25th of May and other countries to follow, we’ve yet to see if it will lift off. It could be one of the most valuable weapons we have in this war.