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Asian and European Nations Taking Very Different Approaches to Coronavirus Pandemic Contact Tracing Apps

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of Digital Asia Hub fellow Dev Lewis from the webinar

June 10, 2020 — The development of digital contact tracing solutions raises endless security issues: Where should data be stored and for how long? Should public health authorities have access? Should app adoption be voluntary or involuntary?

In a webinar hosted on Wednesday by the Center for Democracy & Technology, panelists contrasted the approaches to the development of COVID-19 contract tracing models in Asian versus European countries.

Dev Lewis, fellow and program lead at Digital Asia Hub, reported that over 10 East and South Asian nations have developed their own contact tracing apps.

South Korea has taken one of the most intrusive approaches to digital contact tracing, resulting in a successful reduction of the spread of COVID-19.

The country’s approach quickens the pace of manual contact tracing by utilizing GPS location data, which improves both efficiency and accuracy. It also plans to implement a QR program beginning June 10, logging entrances and exits to public locations.

In spite of their success, the South Korean government has faced heavy criticism for their aggressive approach.

In Singapore, a bluetooth-enabled contact tracing app called Trace Together was developed. However, drastically low adoption rates have rendered the app useless.

According to Lewis, less than a quarter of the population adopted the app. In order for contact tracing apps to be effective, that figure must reach 50 to 60 percent. The low adoption is surprising given Singapore’s high digital literacy levels and high internet penetration rates.

Lewis concluded that contact tracing apps that allow for voluntary adoption do not work, as they lack demand even in the most connected nations.

The QR code initiatives adopted by the Chinese government are not technically a contact tracing app, but rather what  Lewis referred to as a “health passport”. The app attempts to reduce the chances of a resurgence of the disease by controlling who can access areas considered high risk. It relies on centrally stored medical data rather than data from individual phones.

As of yet, no Asian nations have adopted the Google-Apple contact tracing API, or application programming interface.

On the other side of the globe, “the European approach has been fragmented,” said Frederike Kaltheuner, a tech policy fellow at the Mozilla Foundation. While seven countries in the EU released apps based off of the Google-Apple API, revealing the vast influence these corporations have in the West, the U.K. and France developed apps based on centralized designs.

The centralized design adopted by the U.K. and France is not interoperable with Google and Apple’s decentralized API design that has been employed by other EU nations.

According to Kaltheuner, deployment of the U.K. and France’s centralized tracing apps were framed by the press as faceoffs between the countries and Silicon Valley.

But their pride may hurt them in the long run, Kaltheuner said, calling the U.K.’s approach a “really good example of how not to use technology in a pandemic.” The Bluetooth contact tracing app had severe problems and wide-ranging security flaws, resulting in major trust issues.

France’s contact tracing app, launched June 2, utilizes QR codes to notify individuals that have been in contact with those diagnosed with COVID-19. The invasive app has a centralized component, as all the people in contact with the person diagnosed are uploaded to a server. The government has been heavily criticized for this choice.

While, Germany initially wanted to use the centralized French design, they changed course after heavy public pressure in late April and are now planning to utilize the Apple-Google API.

All contact tracing apps adopted by EU nations must ensure compliance with General Data Protection Regulation standards.

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