The noble lie: Covid-19 tracing apps are not what they seem

-- By CamiloValdivieso - 18 Jan 2022


As Covid-19 emerged, many governments rushed to develop contact-tracing apps as tools to tackle the spread of the virus. While these apps had little impact on public health, many suggested that by adopting them, governments embraced new surveillance mechanisms, making them yet again one of the biggest threats to freedom and privacy.

This paper seeks to examine the way in which governments remerged as key actors of mass surveillance by launching Covid-19 contact-tracing apps. For this purpose, it will start by explaining some key features of Covid-19 contact-tracing apps. After that, it will present a few examples of their implementation in different countries around the world. Ultimately, it seeks to show that despite the different technologies adopted, their impact on public health is limited. Therefore, it suggests that governments were more focused on producing new digital surveillance mechanisms, than on creating effective tools to tackle the pandemic.

Generalities of Covid-19 contact-tracing apps

Covid-19 contact-tracing apps can be examined through two basic elements: the tracking method, and the architecture employed to collect data.

Regarding the tracking method, most apps use sensor technologies that are integrated into mobile devices. One of the most common methods is "proximity tracing", which is usually performed by using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to transmit messages containing identifiers to nearby devices. Another popular method is "location tracking", which uses data from the GPS or cell tower triangulation to locate users.

In addition to tracking methods, different architectures can be employed to collect data. First, there is "centralized architecture", which collects contact history data from mobile phones through a communication network. This data is stored and processed in a central server, which generates reports and sends exposure notifications using the same network. On the other hand, there is "decentralized architecture", which employs local resources for data storage and processing, using individual mobile phones.

Despite the different combinations of these elements, in the end, all contact-tracing apps collect and exchange users' data regularly. This comes at a high cost: sacrificing privacy.

Covid-19 contact-tracing apps around the world

In April 2020, Google and Apple developed an interoperable contact-tracing system based on BLE technology called the Google/Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN). This system, which is decentralized, presents an Application Programming Interface (API). Contact-tracing apps from many countries like the United Kingdom and Brazil have relied on this API for their notification of exposure. However, GAEN-API is not open-source, and its public documentation is limited, which brings transparency concerns. Additionally, its results on public health are questionable, as countries that used this technology (like the UK and Brazil) are among the hardest hit during the pandemic.

Another example of contact-tracing technology can be found in Singapore, where TraceTogether? was launched. This app is powered by the open-source application protocol BlueTrace? , which uses BLE technology. Here, the recollected data is stored on individual phones, and the Ministry of Health can only collect it with the users’ consent. It runs on a decentralized architecture, and some consider it to be one the most respectful apps in terms of privacy. That is perhaps why several countries such as Australia and Colombia relied on the system, after Singapore released it as free software.

However, as Covid-19 cases rose in Singapore during 2021, many began questioning the effectiveness of the app. What is worst, in early 2021 the government revealed that the recollected data could also be accessed by the police for criminal investigations. Therefore, with unconvincing effects on public health, the technology seems to have become part of a bigger system of illegitimate government control on the population.

India's contact-tracing app, Aarogya-Setu, is another example. This app, based on Aadhar (India's biometric identification system), uses both BLE and GPS. The recollected data is then shared with the government, on a centralized architecture, and while users’ data is not made public, the app does collect this information, along with the gender and travel history.

This app stores location data and requires constant access to the phone's Bluetooth. Therefore, it is more invasive than Singapore's TraceTogether? , and, from the start, it was also established as a tool through which authorities could ensure compliance with several legal orders. And here, despite it being the most downloaded Covid-19 contact-tracing app in the world, its effect on public health has been unconvincing, with India being dramatically hit during the pandemic.

Finally, we have the example of Israel, where the government launched a mass surveillance program (initially used for counterterrorism), which allowed the tracking of citizens as part of an effort to tackle Covid-19. The contact-tracing technology was managed by the Israeli Security Agency, which, rather than working together with Apple and Google, used the cache memory of mobile-phone location data directly to conduct contact-tracing. This created a much more intrusive mechanism, in which consent was not required. And even though Israel has been one of the most effective countries in combatting the pandemic, most argue that this has little to do with the contact-tracing app (as the app only has a 22,51% penetration rate), and much more with high vaccination rates.


Through the examination of several Covid-19 contact-tracing-apps in different countries around the world, this paper has shown that governments are far from abandoning their position as key players in the arena of mass surveillance and social control. Rather than that, they seem to have adopted new ways through which to keep an eye on citizens by arguing somewhat doubtful altruistic purposes. The impact of Covid-19 contact-tracing apps on public health is not significant, despite the different technologies adopted. As Covid-19 keeps spreading, it remains to be seen what other surveillance mechanisms will be imposed in the name of protecting "public health". For the moment, it is safe to say that governments need to be seen through a skeptical lens, for they seem to be relying on what Plato described as the "noble lie": urging us to comply with measures that sacrifice our freedom for a made-up higher purpose.

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