What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Contact Tracing Apps?

2020-08-11 - 5 minutes read

While contact tracing apps can help us control the spread of COVID-19, they also come with concerns and challenges, such as privacy, equacy, and the technology used. To better understand this situation, Daniel Weitzner (Founding Director, MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, 3Com Founders Principal Research Scientist, and co-PI of the PACT project) , Louise Ivers (Executive Director, Center for Global Health, Massachusetts General Hospital, Associate Professor of Medicine & Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and lead Senior Medical Advisor on the PACT team) and Thomas Jarzombek (Commissioner, Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy for the Digital Industry and Start-Ups) spoke about contact tracing during a German Marshall Fund webinar on July 29, 2020. The webinar was moderated by Sam duPont, the Deputy Director of GMF Digital.

In the webinar, Ivers reiterated how contact tracing is not a new tool in public health. In terms of the current COVID-19 pandemic, she mentioned that we can use contact tracing to both interrupt transmission chains and to investigate how the disease spreads. As for how technology can complement contact tracing, Ivers notes that it can help by “adding to the speed and adding to the scope and allowing us to do contact tracing at a scale that may be very challenging to do at a human level.” Contact tracing is fundamentally important to get right, Ivers emphasized. 

In regards to a specific case, Jarzombek spoke about a contact tracing app used in Germany. Here, Jarzombek emphasized the importance of a privacy-friendly application. To this end, the app they created used a decentralized server and bluetooth, and was created with Google and Apple API. At the time of recording the webinar, the app had 16 million downloads and “is an important part in our strategy fighting against COVID-19” Jarzombek remarks.

Weitzner spoke next and discussed the policy considerations of apps such as these. As an example, he discussed his work with the PACT group. PACT decided against a more intrusive location-based approach. Instead, they designed the PACT protocol with “three design considerations that had policy impact”:

  1. Privacy: Using an approach that focused on proximity not location and keeping in mind that patient and public health authority confidentiality is key
  2. Design Flexibility: Contact tracing apps need the same system to be able to be implemented by different mobile providers. Also, the design must be culturally appropriate and fit local public health goals.
  3. Rapid Notification and Integration: To maximize benefits for public health officials, the app needs to provide rapid notifications and integrate with the manual contact tracing process.

Privacy and Trust in Contact Tracing Apps

In response to a question about the role of trust in contact tracing, Ivers stated that “pandemics are not just infectious situations, they’re human. And the social context and the public health context is really important.” In her experience, “public trust is a really critical piece of pandemic response.” However, trust in an app is not all that is needed, trust has to be part of the whole process. 

Furthering the conversation on trust in relation to his own app, Jarzombek noted that one requirement is trust in the government itself. He notes that from the very beginning, bringing scientists to the media to explain things helped foster trust, a feeling that can spill over to the app. They also collaborated with NGOs concerned with privacy when building the app, and made it an open-source project to enhance trust.

Next, Weitzner spoke on privacy and the differences in leadership and equity around the world. “Trust is not an absolute quality…it’s a composite quality” Weitzner states. “It’s who is the institution you’re dealing with and what is the service you’re getting? Is it effective? Is it useful for you? What is the trade-off?” Weitzner notes that we need to make sure to be open about the successes and failures of digital contact tracing and evaluate “how the digital side of these services are working to encourage people to make the right decisions.”

Next in the webinar, the speakers answered questions from the audience. You can watch their response in the full video from the event: