Germany Backs Away From Centralized Approach to App for COVID-19 Contact Tracing

Germany centralized contact tracing in covid19
Image: Pixabay

Germany has ditched its plans for building a centralized COVID-19 contact tracing app, and will instead adopt a decentralized architecture.

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The chain of infection by the novel coronavirus is hard to break because it can be spread by those showing no symptoms. Countries are rushing to develop apps to provide people with a detailed picture of the risk of catching the coronavirus.

In Europe in recent weeks, a battle has raged between different groups backing centralized vs decentralized infrastructure for apps, reports TechCrunch.

German officials had planned to use a centralized approach to collect data via users’ cellphones and store them in a central repository. That approach would give health officials greater access to information that could help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But privacy advocates weren’t happy with it. They are worried about a slippery slope if the government has access to so much personal information about citizens’ interactions.

This week, the governmental ministers changed their mind, saying the country would move to a decentralized approach.

“This app should be voluntary, meet data protection standards and guarantee a high level of IT security,” Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a statement, according to Reuters. “The main epidemiological goal is to recognize and break chains of infection as soon as possible.”

Three people wearing masks
Image: US Air Force

Contact tracing works by pinpointing anyone that an infected person has come into contact with, and then notifying people who might have been exposed.

Earlier this month, tech giants Apple and Google announced they’re developing a tracking system that uses cellphones’ ability to detect nearby phones via Bluetooth.

The centralized system would have required Apple to change the settings on its phones to allow for the collection of information. But Germany backtracked after Apple refused to make that change, according to Reuters, who cited a ‘senior government source.’

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Under the decentralized approach, users could opt to share their phone number or details of their symptoms – making it easier for health authorities to get in touch and give advice on the best course of action in the event they are found to be at risk.

This consent would be given in the app, however, and not be part of the system’s central architecture.

Germany’s withdrawal now leaves France and the UK the two main regional backers of centralized apps for coronavirus contacts tracing.

The decentralized approach is also supported by the European Parliament, which has cautioned about a potential risk of abuse if data is stored in a centralized database.