Are contact tracing apps advantageous or disadvantageous?

App Development

We can use contact tracing apps to limit the spread of COVID-19, but they are also associated with concerns, such as privacy, equitability, and the technology used. To better understand this situation, Daniel Weitzner (Founding Director, MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, 3Com Founders Principal Research Scientist, and co-PI of the PACT project), Louise Ivers (Executive Director, Center for Global Health, Massachusetts General Hospital, Associate Professor of Medicine & Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and lead Senior Medical Advisor on the PACT team) and Thomas Jarzombek (Commissioner, Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy for the Digital Industry and Start-Ups) spoke about contact tracing during a German Marshall Fund webinar on July 29, 2020. GMF Digital’s Deputy Director, Sam duPont, moderated the webinar.

In her webinar, Ivers emphasized that Contact tracing software has been used in public health for decades. With regard to the current COVID-19 pandemic, she noted that contact tracing can be used both to interrupt transmission chains and to study how the disease spreads. Technology can enhance contact tracing by “speeding up the process, broadening the range, and enabling us to make contact more quickly and efficiently” Ivers emphasizes that contact tracing has fundamental importance to get right, especially at a scale that can seem very daunting to do at a human level. 

Jarzombek mentioned a contact tracking app used in Germany as an example of a specific case. Jarzombek here emphasized the importance of developing a privacy-friendly application. Jarzombek noted that the app they developed used a decentralized server and Bluetooth, as well as Google and Apple APIs. At the time of recording the webinar, the app had 16 million downloads and was an important part of the strategy to combat COVID-19.

The next speaker was Weitzner, who discussed the policy implications of such apps. As an example, he spoke about the PACT group. The PACT group chose not to implement location-based tracking. The PACT protocol was instead developed with “three design considerations that had an impact on policy”:

  1. Respecting patient and public health authority confidentiality by using an approach that emphasizes proximity rather than location
  2. The same system needs to be implemented by different mobile providers to be able to be used for contact tracing apps. Furthermore, the design must suit local public health goals and be culturally appropriate.
  3. The app needs to provide rapid notifications and integrate with the manual contact tracing process in order to be of maximum benefit to public health officials.

Contact tracing apps: Privacy and trust

According to Ivers, when it comes to pandemics, they are not just infectious situations, they are human in nature. In her experience, the social context and public health context are crucial.” In her view, “public trust is essential to a successful pandemic “Trust is not just about trusting an app, but the whole process as well. 

Continuing the conversation about trust in relation to Jarzombek’s own app, Jarzombek noted that trust in the government itself is a requirement. The fact that scientists explained things to the media from the start helped foster trust, which could eventually spill over into the app. To enhance trust, they also worked with NGOs concerning privacy when developing the app.

Weitzner then discussed privacy and the differences in leadership and equity across the globe. Weitzner states that trust is a composite quality and not an absolute quality. “Who is the institution you are dealing with and what kind of service are you receiving?”? Are you satisfied with the service? Are you satisfied with the service? “What are the costs and benefits of digital contact? ”””””” Weitzner notes that we should be open about the successes and failures of digital contact tracing, as well as evaluate “whether the digital side of these services is successful in helping people make the right decisions.”