Law in the Internet Society

Can Contact Tracing App be an Effective Solution?

-- By IppeiKawase - 03 Jan 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes in various fields and at different levels across the world. In particular, the relation between our lives and technologies has deepened even more than before the pandemic. One of technologies that have been introduced during the pandemic is the contact tracing application. The app was adopted in many countries to address pandemic, but can it an effective solution? This essay will take a brief look at how such apps work and examine issues of the apps in terms of effectiveness as an infection control tool.

Types of Contact Tracing App

Location Information Type

This type of apps identifies a person’s contacts by tracking the phone’s movements by using GPS or other information gathered from public infrastructure. Countries such as Israel and India adopt this type. The advantage is that health authorities can collect individual information and directly approach those who contacted a person positive for the virus. However, this type has a disadvantage of collecting individual data unnecessarily and has the possibility of threatening and invading privacy.

Bluetooth Type

This type uses so-called proximity tracking, where phones exchange encrypted tokens with any other nearby phones over Bluetooth. Compared to the first type, it has the advantage of protecting privacy by anonymizing data. Countries and regions such as Germany, Japan, and New York State have introduced this type. More specifically, this system works as follows: in the first step, a user needs to download the app and opt in to contact tracing, which triggers the device to generate proximity identifiers that are changed every 15 minutes. Using Bluetooth technology, these proximity identifiers are exchanged with other devices that are also used in the same way and are physically close to them. When a user tests positive for COVID-19, the app informs other users who were in close contact with the person in the last 14 days. The proximity identifier is only processed inside the devices, and the app does not track a user’s location nor collect other information that reveals a user’s identity.

Purpose of Contact Tracing App

Each government has a common goal to prevent and reduce infections, but the purpose of introducing a contact tracing app can be different depending on each government. The first type is to restrict areas of activities of infected people and isolate them as necessary. Governments such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan are categorized as this group. Second, health authorities such as India, Singapore, and Australia use contact tracing app as a supplemental tool to keep track of close contacts. The third and the most lenient type of use is to notify a person who contacted an infected person and thereby to change people’s behaviors. Countries such as Germany, Japan, and Israel have this purpose to introduce contact tracing apps.

Issues of Contact Tracing App

How effectively can contact tracing apps serve these purposes? One of the key factors for this app to be successful is the adoption rate: the more people use it, the more effective it can be. One research conducted by Oxford University shows that in order to stop the epidemic, it is necessary for approximately 60% of the population to use the app, and even with lower numbers of app users, it can contribute to a reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. In the United States, for example, New York State launched its app on October 1 and over a million people have downloaded it in the first two months, which amounts to about 5% of the population. As this example and other countries’ situation show, the current adoption rate of this app is not sufficient to stop the virus or reduce the cases.

One of the possible reasons why the adoption rate cannot easily reach a certain level is that some people, especially those who need health protection such as the elderly, do not know the existence of such app or do not have the knowledge or skills to use it even if they know the app itself. In these circumstances, it is necessary for the government to reach out to such people and assist them in downloading and using the app. Still, this supportive measure cannot solve the problem with respect to those who do not have a device that can install such applications. The other possible and major reason is that even if people have the knowledge, skills, and necessary devices, they can decide at their own will not to download it because of privacy concerns. This can be an issue even when government adopts the second type of application I mentioned above, because even if the use of Bluetooth reduces the risk of invading privacy technologically and objectively, people can still have subjective concerns regarding their privacy, especially when it comes to sensitive information such as health data.

While it is not easy to remove major obstacles, especially those with respect to privacy, we should note that some of these applications have evolved in a unique way, which may suggest a possible solution to the question as to privacy, That is, some applications were launched and improved by open source community where anyone can see and understand how the application works. Although the main purpose of this attempt is to develop an app efficiently and safely, and it requires us to have a certain level of knowledge to understand the system and technology, these attempts can consequently lead to improvement of transparency and reliability toward contact tracing app.


Contact tracing app can be one tool for the purpose of reducing infections or changing people’s behavior. However, under the current circumstances, it has not been an effective solution due to the several factors above. Still, we need to note that some attempts which can contribute to both developing applications and improving transparency.


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r3 - 04 Jan 2021 - 04:16:31 - IppeiKawase
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