Coronavirus contact tracing apps have been deployed around the world, but experts say they haven’t had the success they hoped for and it’s not the fault of the technology they use.
A new study has found that data privacy concerns have prevented people from using the apps, limiting their effectiveness. But that’s not the only problem the apps faced, and a larger debate about our freedom to use them ensued.
Research published by VoxEU and the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) compared COVID-19 contact tracing apps from nine countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia.
“While accepting that their personal data is under the control of internet companies, most citizens seem reluctant to share their data in the public interest,” the study said.
How do COVID apps work and how secure are they?
Apps used by many governments can tell us if our phone has been near the phone of someone who tested positive for the virus. The more users there are, the more likely it is to help people self-quarantine and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A Oxford University study said that for apps to be effective, 60% of a country’s population should be using them. However, he also said that a figure lower than this could also be effective.
Currently, data on the percentage of populations that use contact tracing applications is scarce. But the study published by VoxEU and CEPR indicated that in 2020 only 26.6% of people in Australia used them, 26.3% in Ireland, 21.7% in Germany, around 16.2% in Italy and only 3.3% in France.
As for privacy, Europe was cautious from the start and tried to tackle the central problem.
At the start of the pandemic, the European Commission aimed to put in place a legal framework to define the requirements for the development of applications.
Apps from EU member states operate under strict Commission data protection guidelines, and they are based on a common technology standard from Apple and Google that securely records close contacts on the device.
it is not a success, not only because of the privacy, not because of the tool, but because of the lack of focus on the systemic dimension. »Margherita Russo, professor of economic policy at the University of Modena and Reggio
Freedom to choose
The study was led by Margherita Russo, professor of economic policy at the University of Modena and Reggio. She previously represented Italy on an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development working group focusing on technology policy.
She told Euronews Next that privacy isn’t the only reason apps haven’t taken off.
“It’s not a success, but it’s not a success, not just because of the confidentiality, not because of the tool, but because of the lack of focus on the systemic dimension.”
According to Russo, our individualistic society becomes a problem when it faces a global threat like COVID.
“Society is something that needs to be addressed when you need to focus on solutions for a pandemic,” she said.
“If your country hasn’t done enough in this direction, it needs to do something else and maybe it needs to create the conditions for people to accept this.”
Russo said a major corporate reorganization is “not something that can be tackled out of the blue during the pandemic.”
Instead, she said social conscience should be developed long before and during this type of global health emergency.
But in England and Wales, COVID-19 tracking apps performed a bit too well, which would have led users to turn off notifications for the app or their bluetooth.
For the week through July 21, a record was set when nearly 700,000 alerts were sent by the app, urging users to self-isolate. This caused staffing problems in many industries, including hospitals and food distribution.
The COVID-19 application in England and Wales is being changed to find contact cases two days before, instead of five.
Misuse of data
For COVID-19 tracking applications to work effectively in stemming the spread of the virus, healthcare systems need to do something with the data they produce. Australia and Italy integrate the data into the local health system, while in New Zealand, South Korea and Russia, the central government directly manages the information.
According to the study, the health systems of many countries were ill-equipped to act on the vast flows of data produced.
“The mathematical model is not enough if you don’t have a healthcare system that can analyze and manage the data,” Russo said.
In the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, where Russo lives, data implementation was a serious problem, she said. This was in part because health systems were overwhelmed with the day-to-day life of the pandemic, but also because many could not afford it.
“I have come to the conclusion, when we describe a policy recommendation, that we have the idea that there are general solutions that work in any context. But that’s not the case, ”she said.
“It’s easy to say these days that data is an incredible resource, you have to harness it, you have to use microdata, you have to integrate data.
“But who has to do this?” What is the cost of data integration? And is this integration feasible in an emergency situation? “
This is essential for building trust among the public, giving them a reason to use such tracking technology, she said.
The amount that governments invest in information campaigns for COVID tracking applications is also a factor in their success. But such data for the study countries was not available. Data was only available for Italy, where the information campaign collapsed in the fall of 2020 as infections skyrocketed.
The study found that this coincided with the opposition parties’ stance against the apps and the oath not to download them.
Governments also played a key role in selecting the companies that create the apps.
The development of the French COVID application was led by the State Institute Inaria with the support of a coalition of French companies, in particular the French telecoms giant Orange. Meanwhile, the Italian government has launched an open call for companies to work on developing its app and has partnered with Milan-based tech start-up Bending Spoons.
But how much governments invest in public funds for the maintenance and use of tracing applications is also hardly documented. The study found that only Germany was the only country out of nine to provide this data.
Russo said this lack of transparency creates democratic control.
“It has to be transparent and maybe the dimensions and resources devoted to politics should be present and questionable, but they are not,” she said.