TO APP OR NOT TO APP? – Contact tracing in a time of suspicion

TO APP OR NOT TO APP? – Contact tracing in a time of suspicion

By Stefan van der Berg



Social media messages are currently doing the rounds – warning people that the new COVID-19 app, also referred to as a Contact Tracing Application, will be used by local governments to gather private information on all its citizens and that it will eventually lead to the demise of freedom and the gathering of private information.  The message reads as follows:

‘’Attention all my contacts who intent to install the COVID-19 APP please delete me from your contact list as all your information and the one’s on your contact list will be available to the government. This will be done against your will and knowledge.’’


This is the question on everyone’s lips since the COVID-19 app was introduced. Opinions both verified and unverified joined hands with conspiracy theorists leading to much debate and a widening of the divide between fact and fiction.

Contact tracing applications remains a highly controversial subject, so let’s highlight some key pieces of information to empower you to make a more informed decision.


Contact tracing is an important component of effective pandemic response, and contact tracing apps have the potential to support this objective. Digital contact tracing, if widely deployed, may be more effective than traditional methods of contact tracing. The traditional approach of using human tracers who interview infected patients about all their recent contacts and then follow up with them has two fundamental drawbacks.

Firstly, low recall.  We tend not to remember all the people we were in contact with during the period we were potentially infectious and also it is impossible to recall people we were in close contact with on a bus or in a store.

Secondly: human tracers have to reach out and interview reported contacts and this can be a very lengthy process. Smartphone-based contact tracing has the potential to bridge those gaps. The app could “remember” the people we do not even know, as long as we all have compatible smartphones and installed the app. Once we are diagnosed, the app would instantly notify all our contacts who meet certain criteria, such as duration of contact, closeness, etc. and recommend testing and/or isolation.


The COVID-19 app is a method of identifying people that were in physical proximity to a positive patient, so that they can be isolated, tested and, if necessary, treated.

The app can detect when a fellow app user is nearby. When two phones running the app are near each other, they will make contact through Bluetooth. If they are close for a long enough time, and one of the two owners later shares a positive coronavirus test via the app, then the other will receive an alert. You can also use the app to check in at venues – for instance, shops, bars, restaurants or places of worship.  Hospitality venues such as pubs and restaurants will be asked to display posters with a QR code, which app users will be able to scan.  The posters will also go up in communal areas of community buildings such as universities, hospitals, and libraries.

Used alongside manual contact tracing, the app will help identify close contacts of a user who tests positive, or visitors to a premises that has suffered an outbreak.

It is important to note that private information, like ID numbers, passwords, personal detail, etc will NOT be accessible to any other users of the app.  The app is NOT an invention or product from local governments to gain private information but has been built using Apple and Google’s exposure notification frameworks.  Both these companies are renowned for their high levels of security and will not compromise their integrity in this regard


The implementation of Contact Tracing apps has raised significant moral concerns. The successful implementation of the technology hinges on public trust and hasty, ill-prepared, and often badly communicated implementations has lead to an undermining of public trust and impeding the general effectiveness of the app. Trust, however, must build on trustworthiness, and thus needs to be backed up by responsible design and corresponding policies. Such “well-founded” credence also remains a strong indicator that choices are self-determined and, thus, in line with democratic values.

In the response to meet ethical requirements and find a basis for justified trust a transparent framework of design and implementation needs to be addressed.

The implementation of digital contact tracing always carries moral costs. In some countries, apps and other mobile-based surveillance measures are imposed on people, leading to an infringement of privacy rights. Even without compulsion, CT apps can have severe consequences for social values: worries range from issues of data protection, to possible stigmatization of patients, social justice concerns or function creep.

Even for countries with a high penetration rate of proximity tracing technologies such as Iceland, the contribution of CT apps to suppressing the pandemic has been questioned.

Oxford University’s Big Data Institute team lead by Professor Christophe Fraser determined that a coronavirus outbreak in a city of one million people is halted if 80% of all smartphone users take part in a tracking system but also determined that apps may only be able to halt an epidemic if usage reaches 60% of the population although lower adoption rates could also help control the virus spread.

One way to increase uptake is, of course, to make CT app use mandatory (to some extent). This, however, adds ethical downsides of liberty restrictions that are seen as substantial in a liberal democratic context, and thereby complicates the justification of a CT app policy

In addressing the substantive privacy values it is prudent to consider the following questions:

  • Are measures in place for data protection and against data loss or misuse?
  • Are data security authorities involved?
  • Is data parsimony guaranteed and access to non-essential personal data minimised?
  • Are the most privacy-preserving solutions (e.g. no real-time data, anonymization) prioritised?
  • Is collection of the tracing-data temporary (e.g. will it be deleted after a certain, specified amount of time)?
  • Is data sharing for other purposes excluded?
  • Are appropriate cyber-resilience measures in place?

The list of considerations sketches the complex set of criteria relevant to assessing CT apps as ethically justifiable public health tools. The list is neither exhaustive but addresses some of the major concerns with the use of CT technology.

Let’s take a step back from the discussion about the intricacies of the contact tracing technology and focus on challenging the assumptions that are too often taken for granted. By looking at recent data and the latest reporting, analysis, and commentary from around the world the following emerged.

Assumption 1: People have modern smartphones and Internet access.

Estimates show that over half of the global population do not have modern smartphones. While in many countries smartphones are taken for granted, worldwide, only approximately 42%-45% of the population has a smartphone7, and only about three-quarters of these devices support the required Bluetooth Low Energy technology.

This means that more than half the world’s population live in countries where smartphone ownership might not be high enough for smartphone-based contact tracing to work. In Sub-Saharan Africa only 26 out of 100 people have a mobile Internet subscription; for comparison, in Europe the number is 76 out of 100. Internet connectivity (necessary for contact tracing apps to work) is similarly unevenly distributed, leaving nearly half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, without access.

Assumption 2: People will choose to install and use contact tracing apps,

A poll from April 2020 shows that Americans have low levels of trust in tech companies, universities, insurance companies, and public health agencies. As a result, half of those who have smartphones in the US will not install a CT app. Experiences from around the world seem to reflect these findings.

Assumption 3: Bluetooth works well enough for measuring the proximity of epidemiological importance,

Without getting too technical some countries some countries are employing apps for contact tracing using Bluetooth Low Energy. Assuming ideal conditions with available smartphones, Bluetooth signals transmitted at full power can be picked up by other smartphones over up to 100 meters (330 ft). This is much further than the distancing advisory of 2 meters (6ft). Current app proposals rely on a combination of (1) lowering the transmission power to prevent such long-distance reception and further (2) relying on Bluetooth signal strength measurement to identify short-distance proximity events. Like every technology whose purpose is to detect certain events, Bluetooth-based contact tracing will suffer from two kinds of errors: false negatives and false positives. False negatives represent the failure of the app to report a potentially dangerous contact, for example, because the distance was misjudged, or even because of external factors: the battery died, or the infected person did not have a smartphone. False positives happen when the app reports a potential exposure to the virus even though such exposure was very unlikely, for example, the phones detected each other through a wall.

Assumption 4: People can and will choose to install and use contact tracing apps,

The result of public trust expressed in a low willingness to opt in and install the existing apps. A poll from April 2020 shows that Americans have low levels of trust in tech companies, universities, insurance companies, and public health agencies. As a result, half of those who have smartphones in the US will not install a contact tracing app.


There have been vastly different responses to the app.  There are those who see it as a safety-belt against infection and those who see it as a breach of personal security.  This raises some questions:  Is the one a realist and the other an idealist?  Is the one a pessimist and the other an optimist?  Or, does the difference lie in the fact that one is an untransformed cynic and the other a transformed skeptic?

A cynic always believes the worst in everything.  A cynic is always distrustful, believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest and, therefore, suspicious of human sincerity or integrity.  A skeptic on the other hand also has doubts but is not easily swayed in any direction, good or bad, until it is proven so.

Paul Maxwell, in an article on the website Desiring God[1] writes the following:

“Cynicism is so undetectable because it is so justifiable. It wears a mask of insight and godliness, but it conceals festering wounds of harboured bitterness against God and neighbour. The cynic places the highest premium on their own analysis of the world. Cynicism is Descartes’ principle of doubt in the hands of self-protective fear — transformed from ‘I think, therefore I am’ to ‘I think therefore you’re dumb’.  It is an emotional rocket launcher mounted on a La-Z-Boy.”

Maxwell then provides the following five trademarks of a cynic.  If we identify any of these trademarks in our lives, whether it be against leaders, cultures, religions, or people, we need to rid ourselves of it before it turns toxic.


At the root of cynicism is a lack of joy, combined with a desire for pleasure. Cynicism is the concoction of indifference and discontentment.


At the root of cynicism is a lack of love. The cynic places the highest premium on their own analysis of the world. Cynicism is Descartes’ principle of doubt in the hands of self-protective fear – transformed from “I think, therefore I am” to “I think you’re dumb.”


At the root of cynicism is misdirected devotion. Cynicism is an inverted emotional liturgy. It is a dull, stubborn fixation on something or someone.


At the root of cynicism is isolation. The presumption of cynicism is not that it condescends from “up there,” but that it disapproves from nowhere. It scorns from a safe and comfortable nothingness that is so empty and contentless that it cannot be retaliated against.


At the root of cynicism is a host of bad experiences. Cynicism, despite its very active nature, is usually a result of truly bad experiences of suffering, resulting in legitimate concerns. It is never instantaneously spawned — it is always the result of time. Cynicism is longsuffering, because with every mistake, with every stupid thing said, with every hurtful thing done, it seeks to mount enough evidence to launch an everlasting, irrevocable counter-offense of justified negative emotion. Cynics are cornered sufferers who have turned their shields into blunt swords.

In times of doubt, broken promises, and hurt a transformed believer would rather consider being a sceptic than a cynic.


We tend to think when we have a digital innovation, we have to give up privacy, but we can both provide the functionality as well as protect individual privacy, it doesn’t have to be the one or the other. We just have to think harder and be more creative in our approach.

As the end-user it remains our responsibility to stimulate informative DISCUSSION on matters of importance and spiritual significance. DISCERN through reliable sources between truth and deception. DISCOVER in a world obsessed with knowledge of how clarity is power.



%d bloggers like this: