There is almost no area of life that is not affected by the corona crisis. In the course of the fight against the current corona pandemic, some measures such as contact restrictions or compulsory masks have already been implemented. In order to be able to better localise the source of infection in the future and thus prevent chains of infection at an early stage, the introduction of smartphone apps to identify corona infections is being discussed. This is accompanied by a debate on how these apps should work and what consequences they can have for society. This article is intended to provide an insight into the current developments of the corona app and to address the questions that society is asking itself in this context.
Is your smartphone infected by the data donation app ?
Don´t worry! Naturally your smartphone is not really infected by anything. But due to corona crisis the Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI) has developed the “Datenspende App” for Germany that you can use if you want to. The app was released on April 7th. Only one month later it already has had over 500 000 users. But what is the goal?
The idea: to make the spread of the virus visible and promote research by voluntary donation of health data. The requirement: the permanent wearing of a smartwatch or fitness tracker to collect enough health data.
How does it work? After downloading the app, the user gets an ID. The use of the data donation app is not anonymous, only pseudonymous. During the first steps the user is asked for the postal code to capture the data locally. Additionally, personal data like age, size, weight and sex is collected. Then the app has to be connected to the smartwatch or fitness tracker. The wearable records vital data such as pulse, temperature and activity profile and sends it to the app. The collected data is transmitted via TLS/SSL encryption to the servers of RKI. Based on this data algorithm can detect changes and can draw conclusions on symptoms of a corona infection. For example, an increase in the pulse rate indicates fever, which is a symptom of the corona infection. However, the app does not provide a reliable diagnosis and does not replace a corona test. Furthermore, it does not give the user any feedback. So, there is no warning if the user shows any symptoms. The data only helps the RKI to better estimate the spread of the virus, especially the number of unreported cases.
An article on heise online discusses the data protection of this app: The “Gesellschaft für Informatik” does not consider the data donation app to meet the IT security and data protection requirements. As data protection is very dependent on the used wearable, the biggest problem is probably the interface. Because of the data protection concerns, the use of the app has to be voluntary and should be limited to the corona period.
Besides the existing “Datenspende App” a second app is in development to support the fight against the coronavirus.
Is the Tracking App the future infection for your Smartphone?
The idea: Informing people about possible corona infections and retracing the chain of infection even better by collecting data and giving information in case of positive coronavirus testing.
After installing the app on the smartphone the app creates an individual ID for its user. Then the app sends the own ID continuously into its surrounding by using a Bluetooth signal. Concurrently it searches for other IDs. When an app user gets in contact with another person who also has installed the app both apps interchange their IDs. An algorithm measures the contact period that is a sign for a likely coronavirus infection. Is the contact period long enough for an infection the apps of both users save their particular ID. This process makes traceable which app users/IDs got probably also infected by corona if one contact person is tested positive.
Concerning the structure and treatment of the app two approaches have been discussed: the central and decentral approach. The central approach was the first one. It implied that if an app user is tested positive on coronavirus, all app contact data of the person would be sent to a central server. The chain of infections would be examined by the central institution which also would contact those app users which stood in contact with the infected person. After a high scepticism regarding privacy protection had emerged, this central based approach was refused.
Now the decentralized approach is in progress. The main difference to the central approach is that in case of a positive coronavirus testing only the ID of the concerned app user is sent to a central server. The contact data that already has been collected in the app is not transmitted. The central institution only gets information about the IDs of infected people and spreads out this information to all app users. So, all app users get same information no matter if they really stood in contact with the infected person or not. The app users investigate on their own whether they stood in contact with the concerned ID. Thus they also investigate independently whether they are probably also infected by the virus or not. This process implements higher anonymity and data control on app users part.
The good news is that meanwhile SAP and telekom already have published a first elaborated concept for the app on the software development platform GitHub. The concept provides that in case of a coronavirus test, the app shall be able to give information about the test result status quo. In Süddeutsche Zeitung it is said that in the middle of June a first version of the app should be available.
Data protection or life saving?
The successful use of a corona app means innovative technological progress, which may possibly be accompanied by a change in social coexistence. The idea of making it possible to contain the virus by collecting personal data is currently dividing society.
On the one hand, people see the tracking of health data as a positive protective measure. Many people are currently suffering from the effects of Covid-19, with loved ones falling ill, dying and their livelihoods threatened. For some people, the successful use of the app gives rise to the hope of locating infected persons more quickly and thus slowing down or even controlling the spread of the infection. And to be honest, how can you blame people who fear for their existence?
On the other hand, many people are sceptical about the corona app measure. Especially the topic of extensive data protection raises questions: is data really only stored decentrally? To what extent can privacy actually be protected by collecting data? Is data protection communicated transparently enough? In countries such as South Korea, Singapore and China, corona tracking apps, which store personal data of infected persons, are already in use. In Germany this is not supposed to be the case, but great uncertainties remain nevertheless. Furthermore, some fear that the use of the app will be made mandatory. However, in Germany the use of the app is to be voluntary. Considering this aspect: To what extent could the app actually produce profitable results?
An article on Deutschlandfunk Kultur discusses the consequences of corona apps for society and portrays the view of the researcher Prof. Dr. Jeanette Hofmann, who deals with political issues of the Internet and the digitalization of society. She fears that too little thought may be given to the long-term consequences of technologies behind corona apps and that every kind of technological progress is irreversible.
In any case it becomes clear that the implementation of a tracking app for corona infected people generates controversial opinions in society. In the long term, the question arises as to what consequences the development of such a technology can have for society and democracy, and how society and politics decide to deal with it. What do you think a perfect corona app should look like?