The tracing apps use Bluetooth technology to track who you’ve been around for an extended period of time, alerting you if you’ve spent time near an infected person so you can get tested and self-isolate.
French officials have said they hope to have their own contact-tracing app ready by mid-May. The United Kingdom’s version is currently undergoing tests, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament this week.
They can be highly effective in stopping mass infections, according to Christophe Fraser, an infectious diseases expert at Oxford University, who is helping to develop the UK app and has extensively investigated outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 and Ebola. He told reporters last week that one infection can be prevented for every one to two people who use a tracing app effectively.
“Germans are very sensitive about [privacy and government surveillance] so it could be that they are also skeptical to use this tracing app once its ready,” said Ulrich Baumgartner, head of Allen & Overy’s German Data Protection Practice.
Germans have readily given up other fundamental rights in the wake of the virus, like going to work, traveling, and attending religious services, but sacrificing their privacy for a government-run app makes them far more wary, Baumgartner said.
“I think if the government continues to make the app a condition for being able to lift the lockdown there will be a lot of social pressure as well. My guess is a lot of people will use it but I’m not sure everyone will be happy with it,” he added.
Strict data protection legislation in Germany prevents academics from merging personal data sets such as taxes and social security, leading to a “substantial disadvantage” compared to researchers in other countries, Siegloch said.
And a proposal to use more intrusive mobile phone location data to track the virus failed to pass in the German parliament last month after protests from civil libertarians.
The privacy debate
One of the major concerns potential users have is where the data will be stored — on central servers hosted by the government or in a decentralized manner on everyone’s phones.
Both systems work the same way for the user, alerting them when they’ve been around someone who has tested positive.
Safe, anonymous and smart?
Baumgartner said Germans would download the app, especially if officials hammer home its privacy features while pushing the idea that the mass voluntary adoption would help them return to a more normal way of life.
Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to reassure Germans earlier this month, when she told reporters that the app is being developed in conjunction with the country’s data privacy minister and is undergoing tests by Germany’s national cybersecurity agency.
“A precondition for the success of the app is that it has to be safe and anonymous, and state-of-the-art in terms of the technology,” Siegloch said. “With regard to the latter I am only mildly optimistic as Germany is lagging behind in terms of digitization compared to other countries.”