What helps if you are skeptical about contact tracking apps?


Modern healthcare systems rely on contact tracing for disease outbreaks. Corresponding smartphone apps promised to give the fight against Covid-19 a significant boost by breaking chains of infection and thus stopping the spread of the disease. Many companies and governments started developing at the beginning of the pandemic. Even rivals Google and Apple cooperated.

But now we see the shortcomings of this premise. The Download-Raten are low, usage rates are even lower, and the apps are ahead of many others logistic hurdles. Manual and automated contact tracing still fails to deliver the much-needed results on a large scale. One recently conducted by the Pew Research Center survey shows that, among other things, people struggle with trusting public health officials with their data. They also don’t like answering the phone when it comes to an unknown caller (like a health department).

Additionally, digital contact tracing has clearly not reached many people in the United States effectively. It’s not just those without a smartphone, but marginalized groups like the elderly, the homeless, and those who fear law enforcement and immigration authorities. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t give up the apps, write the bioethicists Alessandro Blasimme and Effy Vayena from ETH Zurich in the specialist journal “Science”. However, in order to be successful, they must not only be ethical, trustworthy, and locally rooted, but also take into account new findings about what is working.

More from Technology Review

More from Technology Review

In their science essay, the authors also write that “adaptive governance” is an important missing ingredient. Instead of looking for centralized top-down campaigns and strategies that often don’t work if they don’t local requirements be it time for local partnerships, cross-border collaborations and all the human teamwork, all of which are easy to forget when you have a shiny new button to click.

There is currently no national contact tracking app in the US. However, if the authors are correct, this may not be a huge problem. Instead, they say that if we want more people to adopt new technology, we have to rely on “the gradual creation of public trust”. It’s an on-going process where authorities learn from their mistakes and listen to users. It’s also important to have a real overview so users feel that their data is not being misused, and to work together across borders so that the app doesn’t stop working when moving from one place to another.

The number of people infected with the coronavirus is constantly increasing. This selection of articles gives an insight into the effects of the infection:

Even if there are still many unanswered questions about the effectiveness and development of contact tracing apps, one should by no means stop efforts or expand existing efforts without testing. Keep in mind, however, that digital contact tracing is just one of many tools that research-based teamwork requires on-site to build trust and relationships among users, governments, and the technologies themselves.


To home page