As the year 2021 comes to an end, the conclusion we can make is this one: COVID-19 is not leaving us anytime soon. New variants appear regularly, and they spread around the world incredibly quickly. Globalization and mobility proved to be impossible to put on hold, and while the benefits of them are loud and clear, the downsides have also been catastrophic.
In this article, we look back at the years 2020 and 2021. We discuss tech solutions governments all over the world created to stop the spread of COVID-19. One of such major tech attempts was the introduction of state apps for COVID-19 prevention. These are mobile apps governments introduced to identify people with the virus, identify first contacts, enforce and encourage isolation. Due to the nature of such apps, issues such as privacy invasion, governmental control, and discrimination have been widely debated. And, perhaps even more importantly, the question of whether such apps have been effective in the fight against COVID-19 is also still on the table.
So, were state apps yet another expensive but ineffective measure in the global fight against the almighty virus? Or were the people’s tax payments and personal data sacrificed for a good cause? Let’s look at the examples of state apps from different countries.
China was the first country to introduce contact tracing technology to fight the spread of the virus, giving rise to similar technologies worldwide. “Health code” systems were developed by the Chinese giants Alibaba and Tencent and worked as mini-programs hosted by the most popular Chinese apps: WeChat and Alipay. This meant people didn’t have to download anything new: technology was already installed on their phones. The COVID prevention system assigned a “health code” to individuals and neighborhoods, assessing the risk of them having been exposed to the virus. The color code ― green, yellow, or red ― indicated whether a person could use public facilities freely, or whether they needed to be quarantined. The health code was checked in public transport and in all other public facilities.
Neither the companies behind the health code, nor the government have explained how exactly the system decides on the color. Creators mentioned that technology used big data implementation to draw automated conclusions about whether someone is a contagion risk. The total lack of information about how the color was assigned gave rise to nationwide confusion and anger. Yet, people reported that the app was helpful in informing the users about the virus. In interviews and surveys assessing how helpful people have found the app, respondents overwhelmingly identified “information” as the most valuable feature.
Health code technology collected all possible private data: names, home addresses, national ID numbers, contact information and details about recent travel. The New York Times analysis also showed that the system shared information with the police. Of course, these measures made people of China nervous and distrusting of the technology.
The effectiveness of the health code system remains unclear. Some international experts argued that China’s use of it was essential to its successful combat against COVID-19. At the same time, most agree that there is no way to subjectively assess the effectiveness of the health code system. There is no information on the hypothesis underpinning the algorithm that makes the final decision. There is also no information on the quality of the actual data used in the algorithm. We never find out whether the people the algorithm identified as “red” have actually got sick, which means the results are basically unfalsifiable.
Germany launched its state app Corona-Warn-App much later, taking a qualitatively different approach in the fight against COVID. They made the download of the app voluntary, and the developers worked hard to make sure the app works without collecting any personal information, such as identity or location.
The German government promoted the app and explained how it works to the public. If someone is infected, which is proven by a lab test, the user can scan the QR-code using the app. Corona-Warn-App will then send a push notification to all other app users who have been in close proximity with the infected person within the past 14 days. The latter are then entitled to a free COVID test. They are also given recommendations, such as to self-isolate.
All data is received via Bluetooth and is only stored on the actual phones. Infected users are anonymized using randomly generated IDs and data is encrypted in such a way that phone owners, developers, or a third party have no access to it. To increase trustworthiness of the app, the developers have also made the app’s source code public.
Such privacy standards, while met well by the public, made it impossible to accurately assess the effectiveness of the app. No data is stored, which means there is nothing to support any hypothesis. There is even no information on how many users have been warned by the app that they may have encountered an infected person available to researchers. Germany’s officials, however, concluded that mere 5-6% of infections are traced by the app. The reason for such small numbers is that for the app to be effective, at least 50% of the population should be using it. However, only about 40% of the German population chose to give it a go.
In 2020, India developed its own contact tracing app called Aarogya Setu, which means “bridge to health” in Sanskrit. The state made it mandatory for government and private sector employees to download the app. Territories that have been seriously infected, for example, Noida, a suburb of the capital, Delhi, has made it compulsory for all residents to have the app. The ones who refused could be jailed for six months for not complying.
The app works in the following way: using a phone’s Bluetooth and location data, Aarogya Setu lets users know if they have been near a person with COVID-19 within the past fourteen days by scanning a database of known cases of infection. The app collects the user’s names, numbers, gender, and travel history. The information is not made public, but it’s stored and the government has access to it. The app code is not open source, which means that it cannot be audited for security flaws by independent coders and researchers.
Due to its Bluetooth technology, the app has many issues around big data implementation that make it hard to assess the app’s efficacy. For example, it would falsely conclude that the users have met if they are neighbors that share a wall. Besides, there are no methods of verification, meaning the users could fill the questionnaire within the app incorrectly and thus provide researchers with false information.
The official results of the Indian app are, however, mind blowingly successful. Among the Aarogya Setu app users who were recommended to be tested, 24% were found COVID-19 positive. This is nearly fivefold higher compared to the overall COVID-19 positivity rate in the country at that period of time. The app also helped Indian civic authorities to identify the disease trends and map containment zones within their cities.
United States (North Dakota)
In the US, each state and local government cooperated with Apple and Google to create local contact tracing apps and control the spread of COVID-19 locally.
For example, North Dakota introduced a Care19 Diary app. Care19 Diary is a location logging app. Once the user is diagnosed with the virus, they use the app to log and categorize locations they have visited for at least 10 minutes. The users who have been in contact with the infected person receive notifications and are advised to self-isolate.
The app works through the exchange of random keys that change every fifteen minutes. These keys are stored securely on the device and are not accessible to third parties, unless the user has been tested positive for COVID-19 and consent to sharing the random keys with others. Even in that case, the information the app stores is 100% anonymous.
The Department of Health in North Dakota announced that the app has been helpful in identifying people who have been exposed to COVID-19 and it made it easier to reduce the spread of the virus. Typically, the disease investigators rely on what the positive individuals remember about the places and times they visit. The app helps provide a more accurate picture of places the infected person may have visited while able to transmit the virus.
In Moscow, citizens diagnosed with COVID-19 and citizens who live with someone diagnosed with the virus are required to download the social monitoring app. The app makes sure the person is quarantined by tracking its users via GPS and sending them requests to take a photo several times a day. In case a person fails to take a photo or hasn’t registered with the app within 24 hours after having received a diagnosis, they are fined.
The app is full of bugs and technical glitches, which has already resulted in thousands of people wrongly fined and hundreds of lawsuits that followed. Human Rights Watch also noted that the app unjustifiably invades users’ privacy and discourages Russian citizens to seek health care.
Just like with most state apps, it’s impossible to assess the effectiveness of the app. However, the downsides are clear: people are discouraged to seek help and end up with the diagnosis, which can’t be good for the overall fight against the disease.
We’ve reviewed only a small part of state apps developed globally. In fact, most countries have tried it with contact tracing apps, social monitoring apps, QR-codes, and other technologies aimed at fighting the disease. From the ones we’ve reviewed, it’s clear that the results haven’t been impressive.
At this point in the pandemic, experts say that there is no way apps can dramatically change the situation. At the same time, apps can still be useful for individual safety. While it won’t change the numbers dramatically, for every person that downloads an app and adheres to the rules that follow, the risks of getting the virus is lowered. And that’s when the risks and the downsides of every specific app come to play. Is your data safe, like in Germany? Are you risking getting a fine for no reason, like in Russia? These will be the factors that determine how likely someone is to get an app and follow the rules, and add a little bit to self-defense when it comes to fighting the global pandemic.