Europe Proves Contact-Tracing Apps Aren’t A Coronavirus Cure-All

Once viewed as a game-changer against COVID-19, smartphone apps have been plagued by low participation, technical glitches and privacy concerns.

When the StopCovid contact-tracing app was unveiled in France at the beginning of June, its rollout had already been hampered by problems and setbacks. The release had been delayed by nearly a month, and its launch was met with widespread concerns that the Bluetooth technology on which the app relied was too imprecise in some situations, and completely unusable in others. The app couldn’t work in the background, it drained smartphone batteries and it wouldn’t operate with tracing apps that other European nations were developing.

By late June, StopCovid was a confirmed flop. The app had alerted just 14 people that they had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to HuffPost France. And while nearly 2 million people, or 2% of the population, downloaded the app following its initial release, nearly half a million uninstalled it after just a few weeks.

“We can only infer that, just as people are not adhering as much to mask-wearing and social distancing lately, that some do not think they need the app now that the virus is less active,” Cédric O, France’s junior minister for digital affairs, told the Financial Times last month. “It may reflect that French people are simply less worried about the epidemic right now.”

That’s a dramatic change from the spring, when politicians and public health authorities heralded contact-tracing apps as potential game-changers in the fight against the pandemic. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the app would be a key part of what would be a “world beating” contact-tracing program. Rather than cowering in their homes, the thinking went, people could largely be free to go about their daily lives, and the apps would inform them if they came into contact with an infected person and needed to self-isolate.

“We see it as the only alternative to … applying isolation to the whole population,” David Bonsall, a senior researcher at Oxford University working to develop an app with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, said in April. “We think it’s going to be a very important part of that strategy.”

More than 40 countries have launched or are developing contact-tracing apps, according to the MIT Technology Review. So far, however, the results have been lackluster.

Following the initial fanfare, the U.K.’s effort has turned into an embarrassing failure. Britain’s attempts to develop its own centralized app ran into numerous technical challenges, and the government was forced to make a U-turn and focus on a decentralized model developed by Apple and Google. Then, last month, the government backed away even further from its app development plans, with a health minister acknowledging that the app was no longer a key part of the country’s contact-tracing scheme.

“We’re seeking to get something going before the winter, but it isn’t the priority for us at the moment,” the minister said.

Cedric O, France's junior minister for digital affairs, presents the StopCovid contact tracing app at his office in Paris on May 29, 2020.
Cedric O, France's junior minister for digital affairs, presents the StopCovid contact tracing app at his office in Paris on May 29, 2020.
LUDOVIC MARIN via Getty Images

The situation has been echoed in other countries as well.

Norway was an early adopter, rolling out its contact-tracing app in April. However, in June, the Norwegian Data Protection Authority ordered the Norwegian Institute of Public Health to suspend the app’s use and delete all data collected by the technology. The Data Protection Authority said the app presented a disproportionate risk to privacy given low download rates, estimated at less than 15% of individuals over age 16.

Norway’s move came after Lithuania halted its use of a similar app for suspected violations of EU privacy rules.

Singapore was another pioneer in digital tracking, launching its app in late March. Two months later, however, the government was alarmed that only a quarter of the population had downloaded the TraceTogether app.

Even in Germany, which has largely been hailed as a contact-tracing success story, the effectiveness of the country’s Corona-Warn-App is unclear. Since launching in June, the app has been downloaded by approximately 16 million people in Germany, according to the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health agency.

“The app works,” Lothar Wieler, the institute’s president, told the BBC.

However, the fact that the app is built on the decentralized Apple-Google model means that data isn’t shared with the German government, limiting insight into its effectiveness.

“We cannot say exactly how many people were warned, because of the decentralized approach of the app,” Wieler said.

“There isn’t a single country in the world to date that would be able to point to an app and say: ‘That was a game-changer,’” Stephanie Hare, an independent technology researcher, told CNBC earlier this month.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak use their phones during a visit to a restaurant in London, June 26, 2020. The U.K. government had to scrap its initial effort to develop a contact-tracing app.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak use their phones during a visit to a restaurant in London, June 26, 2020. The U.K. government had to scrap its initial effort to develop a contact-tracing app.
WPA Pool via Getty Images

That’s true in the United States as well, where the decision to develop contact-tracing apps is left up to individual states. Currently, approximately a dozen states are developing apps, according to Politico, but most states have no plans to do so.

Even in states that have released apps, the public has been slow to embrace the technology. In North Dakota, one of the earliest states to release an app, less than 5% of the population was using it as of late June, according to STAT.

“This is a red state,” Crystal Wolfrum, a paralegal in Minot, North Dakota, told NBC News. “They don’t want to wear masks. They don’t want to be told what to do. A lot of people I talk to are, like, ‘Nope, you’re not going to track me.’”

Those sentiments are widely shared. More than half of all Americans either do not own smartphones or would not use contact tracing apps backed by Google and Apple, according to a poll by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland released in April. The unwillingness of many Americans to use a contact-tracing app was largely fueled by distrust of tech companies and concerns about privacy.

A woman uses a mobile phone while waiting for a train in Milan, Italy, on May 4, 2020.
A woman uses a mobile phone while waiting for a train in Milan, Italy, on May 4, 2020.
Emanuele Cremaschi via Getty Images

Despite suggestions that at least 60% of the public needs to use a contact-tracing app in order for communities to be protected, researchers say that apps can still be effective, even if far fewer people embrace them.

That figure comes from a widely cited study from Oxford University, but the study’s authors say that it has frequently been taken out of context.

“There’s been a lot of misreporting around efficacy and uptake … suggesting that the app only works at 60% — which is not the case,” Andrea Stewart, a spokesperson for the Oxford team, told the MIT Technology Review.

Certainly, the more people who use an app, the more coverage it provides. But the 60% figure represents the threshold that researchers estimate is required to stop the pandemic on its own, without any other mitigation efforts like social distancing and local shutdowns. Even at much lower usage levels, contract-tracing apps could help reduce the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. Indeed, the researchers found, “the app has an effect at all levels of uptake.”

That means that contact-tracing apps could still be a useful tool for fighting the pandemic and allowing a return to normalcy — provided government officials and public health authorities can overcome the technical challenges, ensure that users’ privacy is protected and, perhaps most of all, establish public trust so that people can feel secure and confident about using the apps.

That’s a tall order, and it’s not clear that any country will be able to achieve those goals. But it’s clear that the apps on their own won’t provide a quick and easy path back to normalcy. Measures like social distancing and wearing face masks will still be necessary. Countries will still need to build up their testing capacities. And an army of human contact tracers will be required, in order to identify and track down individuals who may have been infected.

Anyone who believed that apps would be a panacea was deluding themselves, argued Bruce Schneier, a privacy expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, in a May blog post.

“The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals,” Schneier wrote, “is just plain dumb.”

With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost U.K. and Reuters.

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