As covid-19 continues spreading, scientists are racing over the honour of finding a cure for the virus. However, behind the scenes there is another ongoing competition for inventing an app that could track the spread of the virus and break chains of infections.
The purpose of a covid-19 tracking app is alerting its user if someone within a certain distance has been tested positive for the virus. If this is the case, the user of the app should get tested and stay in quarantine until the results are known. The app should also notify if the user has even passed by someone who has a week later been tested positive. Because humans cannot remember all the places they have been to and the people they have met, a covid-19 tracking app could be of great help.
The app could also be used to make sure the two-week quarantine is followed by the ones travelling to another country, keep the public updated on most recent regulations, remind people to wash their hands, and contain advice for what to do if you suspect you have the virus.
On the other hand, data protection issues are one of the main reasons why the covid-19 apps haven’t reached a great popularity quite yet. The Norwegian app “Smittestopp” was banned by the country’s data inspectorate in mid-June because of data protection concerns. The app had been downloaded over 1.6 million times in the country with a population of 5.3 million people.
A German app “Corona-Warn” was made available to the public on June 16th and has so far been a success with 16 million downloads. Data security has been guaranteed by having no need to provide an email address or name when registering, storing data only for 14 days, and having no third-party access. The app functions by exchanging random codes through a Bluetooth connection. The codes tell the duration of the encounter and how far apart the phones of the users were but don't share names or the location. The app is free to use, and you can choose whether to share a positive test result. If the app notifies about an encounter with someone who has been tested positive, it gives advice on what to do next.
A potential problem with a covid-19 tracking app is getting people to use it. In Germany Corona-Warn has its own page on the government’s official website and it includes a video in which the Chancellor Angela Merkel encourages German citizens to download the app. Based on the number of downloads within three weeks, the app will become even higher in popularity by the autumn.
To conclude, even though the future of these apps in unclear as data protection issues may still arise, Germany has taken a head-start. The next months will show whether the pandemic could be calmed down through a tracking app and the German Corona-Warn plays an important role in defining the future; maybe Apple Store and Google Play will have a separate section for covid-19 apps by the end of the year.