(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

TechMay 27, 2020

What digital contact tracing looks like around the world

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

A week ago, New Zealand launched its official contact tracing app to help in the fight against Covid-19. How does it compare to some of those overseas?

NZ COVID Tracer has been live for less than a week and so far it’s been downloaded by more than 400,000 users. The current version of the app is pretty rudimentary – little more than a “digital diary” of where you were on a given day, granted where you were had the right QR code to scan.

From a technical perspective, the app is pretty simple, and from a privacy perspective, relatively benign, particularly compared to other digital contact tracing efforts that have emerged overseas in the last few weeks. So how does NZ COVID Tracer stack up to some of those from our international counterparts?

Across the ditch in Australia, COVIDSafe is the government’s official contact tracing app and is based on the TraceTogether app used in Singapore. Both COVIDSafe and TraceTogether use Bluetooth technology on mobile phones to take note of other app users you come into contact with. It then stores data on proximity and duration (but not location) locally on your phone for 21 days before being deleted. If someone with the app turns out to have Covid-19, health officials will be able to access that data to trace close contacts of that person over the last 14 (Singapore) or 21 (Australia) days.

Singapore’s TraceTogether app

In theory, the idea is sound. But since these apps are voluntary, their success almost entirely depends on how many people decide to use them. In Singapore, approximately 1.5 million of Singapore’s 5.6 million residents have installed TraceTogether since launching in March, or around 27% of the population. But in order to be effective, officials say it needs to be used by at least three-quarters of Singaporeans who, for the most part, have been hesitant to embrace the app due to concerns around misuse of data (Singapore’s government databases have been subject to cyberattacks in the past) and surveillance (the city-state is already considered one of the most surveilled places in the world). Even its drain on battery life due to its reliance on Bluetooth has been put forward as a barrier for entry.

Similar concerns over privacy have also emerged in Australia where adoption rates are even worse – just 5.87 million people out of the country’s 24.9 million residents (23.5%) have registered for COVIDSafe since its April launch. The app’s barely been used, falling well short of the government’s target threshold of 40% and just one person being successfully contact traced from it so far. The app’s also come under fire from some states who’ve reported being unable to access data (although the health ministry denies this) as well as the government’s decision to overlook locally-run cloud service providers in favour Amazon Web Services – the same provider as NZ COVID Tracer.

At the other end of the spectrum, China’s digital contact tracing system has practically become central to people’s post-lockdown lives. The “health code” service, as it’s been dubbed, uses a traffic light system to designate users a colour based on their health status and travel history. Green means you’re good to go while yellow means you should stay at home as a precaution. Red means you’re either a confirmed or probable case and should be in mandatory quarantine.

Powered by payments app Alipay and social media platform WeChat, the “health code” service has taken Chinese state intrusion on private life to a whole new level. In many cases, only those with green codes are allowed to travel outside their provinces, take public transport, and enter businesses like shops and restaurants. Some users have complained about the lack of transparency over how codes are assigned and what data is being stored by Alipay and WeChat, although how dissenting Chinese citizens really are is hard to tell due to the country’s strict internet censorship laws. Critics outside of China have warned such intrusions will be impossible to roll back once the threat of Covid-19 passes, with some likening them to measures used to target Uighurs in the province of Xinjiang.

A passenger shows a green QR code on his phone to show his health status to security upon arrival at Wenzhou railway station in China (Photo: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

On a less intrusive scale, most people in Taiwan are free to go to wherever they please. But for the tens of thousands under mandatory home quarantine, cellphone location data is being used to “geofence” them in their homes. Instead of developing an official app, the government is using location data sourced from cellphone triangulation to keep track of people’s movements. If the person under quarantine ventures too far from home, it’ll trigger an alert system which is followed up by calls, texts, and even an in-person visit by the police if the person can’t be reached. Officials also call those in quarantine twice a day to make sure they’re close to their phones and haven’t left home without it, while police conduct patrols at popular gathering places with a list of those who should be in quarantine. Anyone caught breaking the rules can be fined a hefty sum of up to NT$1 million (approximately NZ$55,000).

Taiwan’s prompt and extensive contact tracing efforts have been central to its success in containing Covid-19. With the sheer volume of people travelling to-and-from mainland China, officials implemented the system as it quickly realised it would’ve been impossible to monitor everyone using traditional quarantine methods. There are, of course, lingering concerns over privacy, but so far Taiwan’s general public has been broadly supportive.

The Grand Hotel celebrates after Taiwan reported no new Covid-19 cases for two consecutive days on April 17, 2020 (Photo: SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

Similarly, contact tracing efforts in Hong Kong have also focused on monitoring those under mandatory home quarantine using geofencing technology. But instead of using cellphone data, all overseas arrivals to Hong Kong are given a wristband with a unique QR code instead. Users then have to install an app called StayHomeSafe which scans the QR code to pair it with the wristband. Then they have to walk around their home to calibrate the wristband, creating a “composite signature” using surrounding communications signals like wifi, Bluetooth and GPS. To make sure users comply, the app will ask to periodically rescan their QR codes, while those found to be in breach of rules could face a fine of up to HK$25,000 (approximately NZ$5,000) and six months in prison.

Since StayHomeSafe doesn’t track a user’s precise location – only a change in location based on the strength or weakness of various signals – the government has argued that the app is safe to use. For the most part, the system has proven to be a success as Hong Kong continues to record zero new cases and users report high levels of compliance. However, the app’s suffered from an array of technical difficulties while questions remain over whether such measures amount to an infringement on personal liberties, particularly as the government has since rolled out a series of rather physically-intrusive tracking bracelets capable of monitoring users’ movements in and of themselves. 

A tracking wristband for quarantine monitoring seen worn by a passenger who landed in Hong Kong (Photo: Willie Siau/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In South Korea, which managed to drastically lower its case numbers without the need for a stringent lockdown, various mobile technologies have been used to create one of the most effective contact tracing regimes in the world. Rather than rolling out a dedicated app, those who test positive for Covid-19 are asked to describe their recent movements backed up by data from GPS phone tracking, CCTV footage, and credit card transactions. Health officials then send regional texts to alert residents in real-time, linking them to a website with further details on the case including their gender, age category, and names and addresses of the places they visited.

Unlike most countries, South Korea has the legal framework to support this approach thanks to laws passed since the 2015 MERS outbreak allowing it to share location details publicly. The public also seems to broadly support the government publishing details of individuals’ movement with a recent survey finding most “preferred the public good to individual rights”.

But many human rights advocates still see it as an invasion of privacy arguing that it risks exposing people to the social stigma that might come if their community finds out they’ve been infected, particularly in light of a recent outbreak at a cluster of Seoul nightclubs sparking further online harassment and intimidation towards the LGBTQ+ community. On the other hand, these same measures were what allowed the government to contain said outbreak in just two weeks, tracking down more than 45,000 people and testing them. More than 160 people tested positive.

Emergency alerts announcing locations where confirmed COVID-19 patients have visited in Seoul (Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

Over in Europe, most countries are currently in the midst of rolling out nationwide Bluetooth-based apps which have largely been marred by bureaucracy and delays. For those in the European Union, the EU’s data privacy and security law means there are more stringent rules around what governments can and can’t do. Culturally, privacy concerns are also much stronger across the continent compared to elsewhere in the world as not-so-distant memories of fascism and communism still loom large.

In Germany where the sentiment is particularly strong, the government initially proposed a centralised app which would see user data stored in a central location – a more efficient but controversial model with serious concerns over potential misuse of data and vulnerability to hacking. The backlash among Germans was swift and the government eventually decided to replace the app with a decentralised version using more privacy-centric software released by Apple and Google, along with Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, and Italy.

In contrast, countries like the UK, France and Norway have decided to push forward with their centralised apps which they argue will allow health officials to learn more about how Covid-19 spreads and monitor specific hotspots. However, the proposed rollout of these apps hasn’t been without its issues. In France, ongoing privacy concerns forced a government debate on its StopCovid app to be postponed, while in the UK, the NHSX app is set to miss its June 1 deadline after trials on the Isle of Wight produced mixed results. 

The success of both models, however, is ultimately dependent on how many people are willing to take part. In the UK, experts say that at least 60% of the population would need to use NHSX for the app to be effective while those in Germany estimate that at least 50 million out of the country’s 83 million residents would need to get on board, which, at this point, seems pretty unlikely considering neither Singapore nor Australia have managed to convince even a third of theirs.

Meanwhile in India, the government has made it mandatory for millions of people to download its contact tracing app Aarogya Setu, which uses Bluetooth and location data to let users know if they’ve been near a person with Covid-19. The app, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times, has raised a multitude of privacy concerns, particularly as India doesn’t actually have a federal privacy law. And while Aarogya Setu started off as voluntary, it’s now compulsory for both public and private sector workers, as well as those living in “containment zones”. Those caught without the app could face a fine of just over NZ$20 or, alternatively, up to six months in jail

But India isn’t the only country that’s made contact tracing apps a requirement. In Turkey, downloading the government’s contact tracing app is mandatory for those who test positive for Covid-19, while in Qatar, all citizens and residents must have the Ehteraz app on their phones when leaving the house for any reason. As well as having access to GPS data to track users’ movements, controversially, the app also has access to users’ photos and videos sparking a rare privacy backlash in a country where government criticism is rare and laws prohibit disrespect toward officials.

People queuing for the bank amid the three week lockdown in India (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

When it comes to mitigating the spread of Covid-19, there’s no one-size-fits-all silver bullet solution. Different laws dictate the limits of government, different cultures impact our willingness to trust leaders, and different histories affect how tolerant we are of relinquishing our personal freedoms for the public good.

The role of digital contact tracing will vary from state-to-state, but technology should support, not replace, existing contact tracing systems, often made up of real-life people manually tracing those who might be affected. It’s labour intensive but done right, it works. After all, there’s no replacement for a bit of human touch in times like these, even a physically distanced one from a stranger calling from far away. 

Keep going!