BERLIN – Germany hopes to launch a smartphone app within weeks to help trace coronavirus infections after a broad political consensus emerged that adopting an approach pioneered by Singapore can be effective without invading people’s privacy.
Germans are deeply suspicious of digital surveillance and the use of individual smartphone location data to track the spread of the pandemic would be illegal under national and European Union privacy laws.
But a fast-moving debate has yielded agreement across party lines that it would be useful and acceptable to track close-proximity Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ between smartphones.
That would resemble Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which records the recent history of such contacts on a device. Should the smartphone’s owner test positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness the coronavirus can cause, that data could be downloaded so that contact-tracing teams can quickly get in touch with others at risk.
“We are confident we can release the solution in the next few weeks,” said the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecoms, Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI).
The HHI, one of Germany’s institutes for applied research, said it was working with others across Europe to develop an app that would enable the proximity and duration of contact between people to be saved for two weeks on cell phones anonymously and without the use of location data.
“The prerequisite for such an application is full compliance with German data protection laws and usage on a voluntary basis,” the HHI said in response to a Reuters inquiry.
The Robert Koch Institute, which is coordinating Germany’s national coronavirus health response, welcomed the development work being done by the HHI but declined further comment.
The head of the Robert Koch Institute, Lothar Wieler, has warned that Germany is still at the beginning of the pandemic and its hospitals could find their capacity to treat patients exhausted. It has reported 57,298 coronavirus cases, with 455 deaths.
Health Minister Jens Spahn has called for an urgent debate on the use of smartphone technology to manage the coronavirus once containment efforts – which include school closures and bans on meeting in groups – have succeeded in ‘flattening’ the curve of new infections.
He has won support from the Social Democrats, the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition government and the opposition Greens, traditionally strong advocates of data privacy.
Germany’s data protection commissioner, Ulrich Kelber, has supported the use of location and contact data shared on a voluntary basis, describing it as “incredibly useful”.
Privacy advocates see no inherent contradiction between smartphone tracking and data protection and say that done the right way, such contact tracing can make a valuable contribution to containing the coronavirus.
“Rapid contact tracing is a central precondition for it to be possible to loosen the current lockdown in the foreseeable future,” academics Johannes Abeler and Matthias Baecker and privacy campaigner Ulf Buermeyer, wrote for Netzpolitik.org.