A hint of Silicon Valley lies over the Federal Government’s Press and Information Office.
In a windowless room with practical carpeting, where journalists are usually placed in front of a television, the press officers have prepared an official product presentation. In the darkened hall, spotlights illuminate white billboards on which the “Corona Warning App” can be read ten times. Because that software sees the light of day this Tuesday. Four federal ministers and the state minister for digitalization, Dorothee Bär, came to announce this fact. “Like in the prayer room,” health minister Jens Spahn whispers to Chancellor Minister Helge Braun (both CDU) when they sit down.
A choreography was considered for this day, after all, the message is important so that as many people as possible download the software onto their cell phones and thus help to detect the transmission of the corona virus faster than before. It’s about cohesion, security, encouragement from the top. That is why Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU), who is introduced as guardian of “data protection and information security”, and Christine Lambrecht (SPD) as “consumer protection minister”, as Dorothee Bär (CSU) says. Because although Bär qua Amt is the government’s digital representative, it shouldn’t speak about the app at all – just give the ministers the floor.
Her boss, Helge Braun, closes her hands and says that it is “a small step for each of us, but a big step for fighting pandemics”. As you can “see easily” here, it is a project of the entire government – and it has a “broad history”. It’s a nice expression that Braun uses here to describe the scramble that is behind the development of this app.
Spahn originally planned to query the location data of cell phones of potential Corona contact persons from the network operators. That met with massive resistance. Then they switched to a voluntary app, in which the data of their users would have been stored centrally. He and Braun also had to refrain from this at the end of April. The new software is only intended to determine which people were in contact with each other for fifteen minutes, but not where it took place and what the names of the people were. The fifteen minutes, the virologists say, is a reasonable average for establishing closer contact.
While privacy advocates praise the decentralized version that it has now become particularly secure, there is another that is less fortunate. His name is Hans-Christian Boos and he is one of the federal government’s digital consultants. In the most excited phase of the fight against the pandemic in the spring, Boos said that he had found the construct for the Corona app and that things would go quickly now. This Tuesday, however, Boos is not sitting next to the ministers in the spotlight, but in the semi-darkness in front of his computer. He is a victim of a “data protection campaign”, he says. “I am annoyed that an engagement explodes in the face. You’d better sit in the corner and make money, no problem.”
Boos and his consortium Pepp-PT were initially favorites for a system on which the apps of European countries should be based. He designed a software architecture in which the data ended up on a central server. This helps researchers analyze the pandemic, but it sounds like centralized surveillance to some in data protection-friendly Germany. There were objections from civil society, and some of the researchers Boos had brought together accused him that his plans were too nebulous. The government changed direction, commissioned SAP and Telekom instead of Boos, and relied on Apple and Google instead of its pan-European promises.
“Now SAP and Telekom are criticized for supposedly being so slow. We were criticized for not communicating well, but should be quick,” said Boos. Nevertheless, he sees himself as one of the fathers of the Corona app, who is now loading millions of people onto their cell phones. “We have never seen a cent for our work. What is being done now is based on this work.”
Indeed, in his introductory words, Chancellor Braun thanked “the first initiators” who had devised an app with a Bluetooth function for Germany and Europe. “It was a fundamentally new idea that freed us from a very big problem.” But now the boss at the table has Telekom boss Tim Höttges, who now calls his app a “rock star”: “Our thanks go to the two big companies in the valley!” Then he starts a long, lively day before about his “ultra-precise” technology, about his “project, which was great fun”, at the end of which he holds his cell phone next to his face, smiles and says: “Please install the app – I’ve already installed it. “
Tim Höttge’s good mood this morning has many reasons. Not only that its variant has prevailed. He can also take the opportunity to apologize to Telekom users for the recent network disruption and to win new customers straight away: “For those who do not yet have a cell phone, we offer cell phones in our shops, including for the older population” , he says. Here they will not only sell them the very latest smartphone models, on which the Corona app also runs, but they will also kindly install the software in the store.
Because since the app was activated on Tuesday night, many citizens have tried unsuccessfully to install the new miracle software – it simply does not work on older smartphone models. There is “still hope,” says Braun, that the mobile phone manufacturers have made the app accessible to older devices. One is in conversation. Ultimately, however, it is up to the companies to which conditions they link the function of the Corona app.
But such concerns should not really be addressed unless ministers clear them up. Justice Minister Lambrecht, for example, assures that no innkeeper is interested in denying people without an app access to his shop. And there are also high legal hurdles for employers that prevent them from forcing their employees to use the app.
Interior Minister Seehofer reads that “the app itself and the associated infrastructure have been constantly checked for security” before he slips back in his chair and listens with the corners of his mouth pulled down and his forehead wrinkled, what his colleagues say about “algorithm” and “Bluetooth” tell. Spahn says the app will soon work in other European countries as well. After all, almost all countries in the European Union as well as Liechtenstein and Norway are developing or have already published Corona apps. Shortly after the German presentation, the EU Commission announced a technical solution on Tuesday so that the information exchange also works if a user moves within the EU to another country. The Member States had agreed on this. Since the individual apps of the states would have to be modified slightly for this, and the system should first be tested, it will still take some time before the exchange really works across borders. In a first step, those apps are to be connected that, like the German version, store the data of their users locally. In the long term, they are also working on a solution to connect systems with central storage, such as those used in France or Hungary. It would be a solution as Hans-Christian Boos had originally imagined. Just that nobody asked him anymore.