If you’re not familiar with the term, contact tracing apps are used as an easy way to alert people when they come into contact with someone infected with Covid-19. They have shown promising results in countries like South Korea, where lockdowns weren’t necessary to bring things under relative control. The government didn’t even need to make digital contact tracing mandatory for its citizens.
Of course, new arrivals in the country were still required to keep an app installed on their phone during the mandatory quarantine. The app also suffers from several privacy issues, but keeping it (mostly) optional is one step above what others are doing. ProPrivacy has published a report on the state of worldwide contact tracing in an in-depth, but easy to understand format.
You’ll find details such as:
- What tracking technology is used in contact tracing solutions around the globe (Bluetooth, GPS or telecom location data, QR codes, or a hybrid approach)
- Whether the apps are mandatory or not
- What personal data is collected (if applicable), who can access said data, and where it’s stored
- The privacy framework the app is built on
Let’s take a look at which countries made digital contact tracing mandatory, and see whether it was worth giving up even more privacy in the face of a pandemic.
To nobody’s surprise, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) requires every citizen to have the Alipay Health Code app installed on their smartphones. If “Alipay” sounds familiar, that’s because its parent company Alibaba/ Ant Group had a hand in developing the app. People need to have the feature installed in Alipay or WeChat, then fill out some personal information and a health survey. They will then receive a color coded QR code – red, yellow, or green.
Neither the CCP nor Alipay have released any proper explanation on how people are classified into those three categories. You can imagine the confusion among the population as they were served isolation orders with no clear idea why.
Those with yellow QR codes are required to self-isolate at home between one to two weeks, while a red code guarantees two weeks of quarantine. Meanwhile, a green code allows a person to travel relatively freely. Local authorities scan every person’s QR code before they are allowed into most public establishments. This creates an effective (if highly intrusive) way of tracking the movement of people.
How good is it at combating the spread of Covid-19, though? According to Our World in Data, China has managed to “flatten the curve,” though how much of that is a result of contact tracing is up to speculation.
A similar situation could be seen in India, where peoples’ liberties were severely limited if they didn’t download the Aarogya Setu contact tracing app. What’s different is the tracking method used. India’s contact tracing app uses a combination of Bluetooth and GPS data to alert anyone that has potentially been exposed to an infected person.
Because there was no legislation backing the mandatory usage of the app, it came under heavy scrutiny from the public and various officials. Moreover, the app was considered exclusionary in nature, since only about 31% of India’s population even has access to a smartphone.
Aarogya Setu remains mandatory for employees, as well as residents of containment zones. Travelers that don’t have the app installed may opt to fill out a declaration form instead. Those travelling to the Punjab region will need to register through the COVA app – another contact tracing solution. Alternatively, they can register through a government-provided web portal.
The app’s effectiveness was measured slightly differently – namely, by how many potential outbreaks it prevented. More specifically, it detected over 3000 Covid-19 hotspots, 3 to 17 days ahead of time.
While contact tracing isn’t mandatory country-wide, people who wish to travel to and from Cebu city will require a smartphone with the WeTrace app installed. Employees could apply for a work travel pass (WTP) through the app before the August 12 deadline. Applicants received the WTP in QR code form, though many have complained about the unreliability of the system.
WeTrace is a pretty straight-forward app and uses GPS location services to track and alert people of potential exposure to the virus. Now, the effectiveness of contact tracing in the Philippines hasn’t been the focus of any studies thus far. However, multiple reports show that the Philippines hasn’t been as successful as other Asian countries at containing Covid-19 cases.
Contact tracing has been the object of public outcry in Moscow as well, with people being wrongfully fined thanks to a poorly developed platform. Russian officials themselves admitted that the mandatory “Social Monitoring” app was “rushed out in a matter of weeks.” Somewhat understandable considering the circumstances, but no effort seems to have gone into fixing the chaos that ensued.
The “Social Monitoring” app uses QR codes and location data to track Moscovites, much like the previously discussed systems. But how effective was it in preventing Covid-19 deaths?
Well, if the official Russian figures are accurate, Moscow has only experienced a 3.8% mortality rate – a much lower number than other major cities around the world (e.g. 12.5% in Madrid, Spain). However, experts rightfully draw attention to the fact that there is no standardized way of recording Covid-19 deaths, making comparisons like these impractical.
The app was only made mandatory in the capital, with the rest of the country adopting their own local contact tracing solutions.
Mandatory Contact Tracing Apps – The Verdict
Scientists are skeptical of their effectiveness in countries where the apps are optional. Social distancing and wearing masks in public can also influence the results of such mass-scale studies. Furthermore, many human rights activists call into question what are clear erosions of privacy by governments.
Finally, slow app adoption by the population also means experts have fewer data samples to work with. Despite various anecdotal successes, the data is still insufficient to determine whether this system is truly effective.