Jun 16, 2020
"Things always tend to turn out different than imagined or planned." This sentence is particularly true in 2020. We look back and ahead on the occasion of the launch of the German tracing app for Covid-19.
Since the beginning of the year, we seem to have slipped from one unforeseen event to the next disaster. While Australia was still on fire, people suddenly became sick in China. And just a few weeks later, Europe closed its borders, hell broke out all over Italy and New York, and governments worldwide announced the lockdown - except Sweden (but that's a separate issue). Virologists became the new superstars, while conspiracists launched wild theories about 5G and we all started to wear masks while shopping. Corona has shaken and awaken us systematically, politically, interpersonal. We long for the predictability of normalcy, the ability to know what will happen tomorrow. And maybe the now launched tracing app for Covid-19 can relieve us of a bit of the abnormality?
Tracing apps are the great hope of politics, business and science - at least if you believe the current reporting in the western world. And anyone who knows us at INDEED knows that we are open to technical solutions. But we also like to take a closer look at whether or for whom this solution is actually great.
Let's go through the simplest scenario: The population is equipped with the right app, which in the German case only stores my proximity to other devices and thus potential infection risks. If I have been exposed to a risk while otherwise enjoying the "normality with a mask", the app warns me and I voluntarily go into self-isolation and, if necessary, get myself tested if symptoms occur. If my test is positive, I will announce that via the app and anyone who may have endangered will be notified.
In theory, scientists could see very nicely how and whether the virus spreads or is contained. South Korea has already achieved containment success with contact tracking and spreading monitoring. Sounds promising if it weren't for the usual questions:
- Who saves my and other movement data where, in what form and for how long?
- What area coverage / distribution does such an app actually need to function properly?
- Once you have decided to disclose your data, who will ensure that new functions are not (secretly) added?
The app website answers some of these questions: https://www.coronawarn.app/de/faq/ (DE / EN). In South Korea, the case is clear: Here, in an emergency, protection against infection comes before personal rights. In Germany, special legislation has been dispensed because the data remains private and is not collected centrally - so the short version.
Technically speaking, tracing apps are a moderate technical remedy in a world without medical remedies or vaccinations that will bring a touch of normalcy in 2020. From a socially critical perspective, tracing apps could be the gateway for total surveillance. It depends on the respective political will to make decisions and on social maturity as well as the responsibility of the individual whether technology and society work well together.
A survey by the FAZ (German newspaper) shows a positive general mood. 70% of the more than 3,000 respondents stated that they are likely to download and use the app asap (as of June 15, 2020 at 1:45 p.m.). Studies suggest that at least 60-70% of the population would have to use the app actively and for the purpose to be effective. Leaving a cell phone at home at the post-corona party or a near-field protector would then be negligible inaccuracies.
The roll-out in Iceland shows, however, that not even 40% of the population there takes pleasure in this type of recovery. Whether this is the case because they distrust the authorities or fear reprisals, remains uncertain. It could just be laziness or ignorance. Though, the app is mandatory for tourists, which caused mixed reactions among our colleagues. From "adequate to protect the local population" to "Luckily, everybody can decide for their self not to enter".
India is currently the only democracy that has made their app mandatory. A non-installation has serious consequences from job loss to detention. This effect shocked most of our colleagues.
A flash poll among our colleagues showed a positive general mood. 58% of our colleagues want to download and use the app. 25% of colleagues are cautious about the app solution, while some want to dig deeper into the topic before making a decision.
In their opinion, data protection, anonymity and voluntariness are the central criteria for a successful launch of the app. But there were also specific questions:
- How does the app actually recognize that everyone involved has worn a mask or no mask, and what effects does this have on the risk of infection?
- And what if, once I have tested positive, I am no longer considered to be contagious after recovery and can I ignore the warning app afterwards?
The website does not currently provide any information on these questions, but the communication campaign has just started – so we hold our horses.
Meanwhile, we are thinking internally about how we will further sensitize our colleagues to the topic and deal with possible warning cases at INDEED. Home office was actually working quite well now - so there is no need to panic in case of suspicion. Or is there?!
A sudden infestation and herd immunity, in which the virus dies due to the lack of potential victims without leaving any significant human losses, seems unlikely or impossible according to the current state of knowledge. In addition, we are still relatively clueless when it comes to immunity after surviving an illness caused by SARS-COV-2. Research suggests that immune defense is learning - but we are a long way from a legion of those who have recovered.
“Immunishness” or an immunity continuum are keywords that currently determine the discussion. Factors such as age or severity of the sickness make it difficult to make clear statements; likewise, false positive and false negative test results. Most likely, those who have recovered are “resistant” to the virus, but who can or is willing to say that with certainty after 6 months of research on a previously unknown virus?
Everyone can and should decide for themselves. An enlightened decision is important. That is why we have collected a few links that are hopefully interesting and will help you make your own decision (without myths or conspiracy).
Further information about the app:
And other articles that were / are worth reading:
All we can say is that we are prepared (sort of) for whatever comes next - with or without an app. We are making plans for the coming weeks and months, certain that we will have to change them. Welcome to the (ab)normal year 2020.