28 countries race to launch official Covid-19 tracking apps to reduce the spread of the virus
- 28 countries have launched official contact tracing apps as a tool to reduce the spread of the virus, according to new analysis by Linklaters
- A further 11 countries are known to be developing tracing apps but questions remain over whether it is a ‘magic bullet’ in overcoming the global pandemic
- As Big Tech steps up to the challenge of widescale adoption, privacy and data protection campaigners ring alarm bells
In a bid to harness technology to limit the spread of coronavirus, 28 countries have launched official nationwide contact-tracing apps, according to new analysis by global law firm Linklaters. A further 11 countries are known to be developing apps to trace positive cases of the virus, using either GPS or Bluetooth data, with some expected to launch in a matter of days. However, this new class of apps means that governments are facing significant data protection obstacles.
Asia leads on contact-tracing apps
Asia is leading the way, with 13 apps deployed by national governments so far, as countries in the region begin to restart their economies whilst also contending with new, imported cases of the virus.
Meanwhile, Europe has seen 11 countries launch official apps, including six EU member states. Across the bloc, there are growing calls for coordination in the gathering and sharing of data to tackle the pandemic in a “harmonised way”. The European Commission is expected to publish guidelines for the development and use of tracing apps for Member states in the coming days.
Privacy and data protection
Whilst countries rush to deploy these apps, they raise a multitude of privacy and data protection issues. Cultural and social differences across the globe when balancing between surveillance and privacy varies widely.
In Europe, geo-location data does not qualify as sensitive data, but it is generally considered by data protection authorities across the EU and the UK as particularly intrusive and therefore requires individual consent. However, there are lower thresholds to overcome in the context of a crisis, as long as data protection principles are complied with.
Sonia Cissé, TMT/IP Counsel at Linklaters commented:
"Public authorities will be at pains to allay privacy concerns when launching these apps as they try to balance the rights and freedoms of their citizens with the power that technology could bring in limiting the spread of the virus. The challenge will be for them to ensure strict compliance with the GDPR and, in particular, with principles like data minimisation, limited data storage periods and respect of data subject rights which will be challenging.
There will also be important lessons that countries can learn from each other when it comes to data governance and data protection, for example preventing misuse and minimising the risk of cyber breaches, such as through the de-centralisation of data. In this context, data protection authorities will play a key role in an oversight capacity, making good use of the reinforced cooperation introduced by the GDPR to provide harmonised guidelines.”
Tech giants show their might
The number of countries launching contact tracing apps is expected to rise even further from next month following news of the ground-breaking collaboration between Google and Apple to add a tracing capability into their operating systems. This will make it even easier for public health authorities to develop apps that notify when a person has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.
"The plan announced by Google and Apple will accelerate efforts to launch contact tracing apps around the world. Tech giants are stepping up to the global crisis without any guarantee that, if successful, they will see a shift in attitudes by governments and regulators around the world and the threat of heavy regulation retreats.”
Contact tracing apps are by no means a ‘magic bullet’ however. Having the tools in place to track and trace those with coronavirus is an important step, but there is also the challenge of widescale adoption in order for these apps to work effectively. As some countries begin to ease lockdown restrictions, governments around the world will start to add a new pillar to their public health messaging - use these apps in order to protect yourself and others.”
Table showing global deployment and development of official nationwide contact tracing apps
|Status of official contact tracing app|
|United Arab Emirates||✓|
- Information accurate as of 15th April 2020
- Analysis is based on mobile applications developed by a national government for nationwide use. This therefore does not include apps that have been deployed at state or city level. Apps rely on contact tracing technology, either by GPS or Bluetooth technology, to alert users to prior contact with positive cases of Covid-19.