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Digital Contact Tracing Apps Gaining Global Popularity

 

Many countries around the world have developed contact tracing apps to identify those who might have come into contact with an infected person and hopefully break the transmission chain of the COVID-19 disease.

Unlike digital contact tracing apps, manual contact tracing often requires infected persons to recall the places they have been to and the people they have been in close contact with. However, they may not be able to recall these details with precision. This is where contact tracing apps come in handy.

To be effective, the use of these apps needs to be widespread, with users comfortable with adopting a technology that effectively turns their phones into digital surveillance tools.

While more privacy-conscious countries are implementing voluntary, Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing apps with a decentralized model, countries with strict surveillance measures seek centralized models that collect more sensitive information and use GPS technology to give the government more control and access during this pandemic.

Let’s take a look at some of the contact tracing apps that have been implemented around the world.

 

Singapore: TraceTogether App

The TraceTogether app is developed by Singapore’s Government Technology Agency and the Ministry of Health (MOH) to complement manual contact tracing efforts. It was released on 20 March 2020.

TraceTogether is a Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing app that does not collect or use location data. Instead, it uses Bluetooth to approximate the device’s distance in relation to other TraceTogether devices.

It collects encrypted data, such as the user’s name, contact number, and identification details that are stored locally on the user’s phone. This data is only shared with MOH when the user is confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 to facilitate contact tracing.

In the event that the user does not come into close contact with a COVID-19 case, any data that is older than 25 days will be automatically deleted.

Simultaneously, many countries such as Australia, Colombia, Czech Republic, and Fiji have adopted similar contact tracing apps based on Singapore’s TraceTogether app.

 

Hong Kong: StayHomeSafeApp

Unlike most contact tracing apps which focus on identifying the chain of transmission, Hong Kong’s StayHomeSafe app seeks to restrict people’s movement.

Visitors arriving in Hong Kong must undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine and download the StayHomeSafe app. Using geofencing technology, which detects Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS signals, the app tracks the user’s location relative to the quarantine area.

The app is paired with a wristband using a unique QR code to ensure that the person has not left the designated quarantine location. However, the app does not use GPS location tracking and does not track or record the user’s exact geographic location.

Consulting the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, the StayHomeSafe tracking app was designed to ensure compliance with data protection regulations.

Nonetheless, the government may conduct spot checks, make a prosecution or even, issue a wanted warrant if the person is found to have left the dwelling place without permission during the quarantine period.

 

Israel: HaMagen App 

HaMagen in Hebrew, also known as “The Shield,” was launched by the Ministry of Health on March 22, 2020. The iOS and Android contact tracing app lets users know if they have crossed paths with anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The app works by cross-checking the historical data of patients from the Ministry of Health who have been tested positive for the virus with the user’s GPS history from their mobile phone.

Due to a slew of data and privacy concerns, the Health Ministry has released an updated version of the app, HaMagen 2, which requires user authorization to access tracking services, internet access, and Bluetooth services on the user’s device.

The new version, HaMagen 2’s source code ensured that data such as cross-checking, location, and proximity information would be kept for 2 weeks and stored locally on the user’s device as per the transparency policy.

 

Conclusion

Countries worldwide have turned to technology to fight against COVID-19 in the form of contact tracing apps. Data and Privacy concerns present a significant challenge in driving adoption for these apps since users remain apprehensive about how organizations will use their personal data.

One way for governments to increase the adoption rates would be to make the usage of these apps compulsory, as in the case of Singapore. As the country prepares for the Phase 3 reopening, the TraceTogether app or token will be mandatory at venues including restaurants, workplaces, schools, and shopping malls. In most countries where adoption is voluntary, the reality is that the uptake has been low.

In order to make it work, governments will have to ensure that the contact tracing apps are secure and easy to use, keeping in mind citizens’ privacy and data concerns to ensure the seamless adoption of new technologies.

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