The development of the Corona app is stalling in Germany. Other countries are already using the technology – but the interim conclusion is sobering.
Anyone wiping through the settings of their cell phones these days could discover a new dialogue there, which should surprise many people. “Notifications of possible contact with Covid-19 infected” Google calls the option, at Apple it is called “Covid-19 contact protocol”. For a few days now, the current Android and iOS versions have included interfaces that should help if there is ever the long-awaited Corona app.
However, the two companies only provide the technical basis. The interface enables apps to use the Bluetooth Low Energy radio standard. This allows the distance to other smartphones to be measured. This so-called contact tracing is intended to warn people who have encountered infected people and who may have contracted it – anonymously and without privacy risks.
“For me this is really the preferred tool,” said virologist Christian Drosten in early April. “We should really do everything we can to get it implemented.” At least in Germany, this has remained wishful thinking, originally the app should be ready shortly after Easter. After a bitter dispute over fundamental issues, Germany is now opting for a decentralized model. Most of the data is stored and evaluated locally on the smartphone of the user.
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The federal government has commissioned Deutsche Telekom and software company SAP to develop the app. The first details of the concept were recently published, but it will probably take until mid-June before the app can actually be downloaded. Then a specially commissioned advertising agency with slogans like “This app can do nothing but save lives” should convince as many people as possible to use the application, which is simply called “Corona Warn App”.
While there is still development in Germany, tracing apps have long been used elsewhere. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) collects the various projects in a database and currently counts 22 countries in which there are ready-made apps. Some of the approaches are not comparable to Germany: the governments in China, India and Qatar, for example, oblige citizens to use the apps. However, several countries have now gained experience that allow conclusions to be drawn about Germany – and they show that an app cannot be a panacea, but at best it can be a building block for many in the fight against the virus.
The Australian Corona app has been a flop so far
The most sobering figure is found in the UK Guardianwho reports on the Australian app Covidsafe. It is simply one. Although the system has been in use since the end of April and meanwhile every third cell phone owner in Australia has downloaded the app, only one contact person of an infected person has been notified. At the end of April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had promised that the app would make a decisive contribution to relaxing the corona measures.
There are several reasons why this hope was not fulfilled. On the one hand, Australia has a relatively good grip on the pandemic; only a few infections are reported every day. The app cannot warn so many people who may have been infected. On the other hand, Australia has decided to store the data centrally – which Apple and Google do not support. The app is therefore almost unusable, especially on iPhones. Australia is therefore considering switching to a decentralized model, but this is a major challenge in day-to-day operations.
The UK is facing a similar problem that the tracing app is currently testing on the Isle of Wight in southern England. There, the developers try to circumvent the Apple blockade with technical tricks. However, this obviously works so badly that a Swiss company should now check whether and how the system can be decentralized so that developers can access the interfaces from Apple and Google.
“The technology is more or less useless, I wouldn’t say”
If you like, these two US companies are forcing governments on how the corona data is stored and evaluated. Some critics consider this dangerous because it disempowers democratically legitimized decision-makers. Proponents, on the other hand, emphasize that the decentralized approach is less prone to abuse. In any case, it is clear that the Federal Government would not have had a chance to implement a central model against the will of Apple and Google.
Distribution is an important prerequisite for the success of tracing apps. Only when a significant part of the population participates can contact persons be reasonably reliably informed. In no other country does it work as well as in Iceland, where almost 40 percent of the people have downloaded the Rakning C-19 app since the beginning of April. Iceland uses GPS tracking instead of Bluetooth tracing, so the experience can only be transferred to Germany to a limited extent.
But at least Iceland shows that a comparatively high level of acceptance does not automatically mean that the app actually helps. “The technology is more or less, I wouldn’t say useless,” quotes Technology Review, the magazine of the Boston MIT, the responsible officials. Rakning C-19 has been helpful in some cases. But it has not proven to be groundbreaking. Nevertheless, Iceland has so far had the virus well under control: with comprehensive tests, strict isolation – and manual tracking of contacts.
Coronavirus: How do you deal with uncertainty?:Readers’ discussion