Contact-tracing apps enjoy limited success amid privacy fears

When Singapore launched the first smartphone app of its kind last month to identify and alert people who had interacted with carriers of the novel coronavirus, the city-state of roughly 5.7 million people had just 385 cases of infections.

But even as cases in the country – which is in lockdown – have surged past 9,000, only about one in five people have downloaded the app, TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth signals to log when people have been close to one another.

The modest numbers in a tech-savvy country where trust in government is high shows the challenges facing public health authorities and technology experts around the world who are looking to exit lockdowns and who believe contact-tracing apps can play an important role in restarting economies.

A few countries, including South Korea and Israel, are using high-tech methods of contact tracing that involve tracking peoples’ locations via phone networks. But such centralised, surveillance-based approaches are viewed as invasive and unacceptable in many countries for privacy reasons.

Scientists and researchers from more than 25 countries published an open letter on Monday urging governments not to abuse such technology to spy on their people and warning of risks in an approach championed by Germany.

“We are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large,” said the letter that gathered more than 300 signatures.

The Bluetooth approach, being pursued at various stages by governments across Europe and Latin America, as well as in Australia and many Asia nations, requires a majority of people in a geographic area to adopt it for it to be effective.

The apps should be voluntary, and would need to be downloaded by at least 60 percent of the population to achieve the so-called “digital herd immunity” needed to suppress COVID-19, say researchers from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute.

An app in India, believed to be the second in the world to go live after Singapore, has reached 50 million downloads on Android phones, which dominate the market. That’s a small fraction of India’s 500 million-strong smartphone user base, not to mention its population of more than 1.3 billion.

“It requires quite a bit of effort on your side as a user and the value is not very tangible,” said Frederic Giron, a Singapore-based analyst with market research firm Forrester, referring to TraceTogether.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced new anti-virus efforts on Tuesday and said “we will need everyone’s cooperation to install and use” apps such as TraceTogether, though he stopped short of saying it would be mandatory.

The efforts in Singapore, India and elsewhere are still in their early stages. A joint initiative announced last week by Apple and Google could give the concept a boost, in part by smoothing key technical issues.

The apps also have limited utility during lockdowns, but could prove much more appealing when people are again in frequent contact. Italian carmaker Ferrari, for example, is rolling out a voluntary contact-tracing app as part of its programme for safely reopening its factories.

In Australia, the government has suggested such apps could be mandatory, though that approach is fiercely opposed by European governments and privacy advocates. Apple and Google say they will not support compulsory tracing apps.

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