Why COVID-19 contact tracing must be effective, efficient and responsible

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  • Technology can automate contact tracing to ensure it can be done quickly and efficiently.
  • Standards should guide the deployment of contact tracing apps to protect user privacy.

As the world grapples with the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are scrambling to establish and expand systems for effective contract tracing. This will be essential to limit the spread and prevent a resurgence of the new coronavirus. But implementation won’t be simple: there are many different ways to perform contact tracing, ranging from analog leather shoe methods to those that leverage technology. Regardless of how it is conducted, without appropriate safeguards, contact tracing can increase the risk that people’s daily behavior will be monitored and controlled.

Some experts have predicted that the virus will be with us for years to come. Given this potential, it is crucial that appropriate and effective contact tracing standards are established to facilitate the protection of health and privacy.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation between governments, international organizations and the business community, which is central to the World Economic Forum’s mission as an international organization for public-private cooperation.


Since its launch on March 11, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 companies and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19 .

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all companies and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a proven track record of supporting efforts to contain disease outbreaks. In 2017, at our annual meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate vaccine development. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

What is contact tracing and why is it needed?

Contact tracing is an effective technique that has controlled plagues and viruses for hundreds of years, dating back to the bubonic plague. At its core, it takes the form of an “army” of human agents that identify and isolate anyone who has been in close proximity to an infected person. In this setup, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 may be asked who they came into contact with in the previous 14 days. These contacts will then be manually searched and notified by phone.

Manual tracing is effective but slow. In fact, for some cities currently dealing with super spreaders, manual tracing alone may be too slow to be reliable. Based on what we know about COVID-19, we may need to identify contacts the same day people find out they are infected. This will require the help of technology, in the form of contact tracing apps that automate the work.

Contact tracing apps use location data collected automatically from mobile devices to identify and notify people who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. The ability of apps to automatically identify and notify people at risk is far more effective than manual systems based on interviews and phone calls. And contact tracing apps have another advantage over analog systems: people spend a large part of their lives staring at their phones. In some parts of the world, the average screen time has reached 4 hours and 23 minutes per day, ensuring that users can receive updates quickly and efficiently.

There is significant traction in the development of mobile apps for contact tracing. Two open protocols, Decentralized Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing and Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing, are working to develop frameworks that can be applied globally. Several nations have pledged to participate in these efforts – a positive sign in our interconnected world.

Risks to consider

Automated contact tracing applications, if implemented correctly, can reduce the risk of human error. But we must be careful not to substitute human error for mass surveillance, which could be made possible if adequate safeguards are not put in place from the start.

An app that can track people’s movements to identify potential COVID cases can also be used to monitor other behaviors. Technology is amoral, which is why it’s essential to develop standards to ensure that contact tracing is done responsibly and that the technology that protects us from disease doesn’t also put people’s privacy at risk. .

Protect health and privacy

Contact tracing standards can limit the collection, storage and sharing of citizen data so that it is used for no other purpose than to slow the spread of COVID-19. These can include government mandates that ensure data collected through contact tracing cannot be shared beyond affected healthcare providers and other essential first responders. Rules should be established to ensure that contact tracing data will not be retained after a certain period – ideally weeks or months, not years.

For optimal protection, governments should adopt solutions that build these safeguards into the technology itself. The only way the data is truly private is if it resides on individual devices and nowhere else, so that no middleman can retroactively search through transmission logs and identify a person’s tracking history. . Encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp already use this standard, and contact tracing systems are expected to follow. One way to do this is to adopt decentralized applications for contact tracing, in which people’s devices communicate directly with each other on an encrypted basis, completely bypassing a central authority.

Exposure notification is one such decentralized contact tracing model that is gaining traction. A collaboration between Google and Apple, it is an opt-in solution with a stated goal of monitoring community spread while protecting citizen privacy. A number of governments have expressed interest in exposure notification, and other projects are underway in parallel.

No solution is perfect, of course, and the decentralized approach is not without its weaknesses. Apple and Google’s use of Bluetooth for proximity data, with its 100-meter radius, could yield false positives. And the system’s reliance on IP addresses is a potential Achilles’ heel that could open people up to the kind of invasive tracking the project claims to be trying to prevent. But there are known measures that can be taken to mitigate these risks, such as disallowing location tracking in apps that use a decentralized tracking system.

A vaccine is months away, and cities around the world will need to find ways to control the virus while maintaining public trust.

While the overriding goal in the coming months will be to make progress against the global pandemic, it is essential that any contact tracing solution prioritizes and protects the privacy of individuals. We have the technology to do it; all it takes is the will to implement it. Strong and clear contact tracing standards that protect people’s right to privacy as well as their health will be a major step in the right direction.


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