COVID-19 Tracing Apps Have to Go Viral to Work. That’s a Big Ask

To be useful, any COVID-19 tracing app has to go viral.

But with concerns about privacy running high, getting a contact tracing app voluntarily adopted at scale is a big ask. Governments around the world are weighing different privacy-enhancing designs, with some saying an app would be voluntary to begin with, but not ruling out making it compulsory. 

A now oft-cited statistic, Singapore’s TraceTogether app was adopted by only 10-20 percent of the population, with the country’s government now calling on everyone to download it. In the U.K., for example, experts believe some 60 percent of the population would have to download the app to make it work effectively, which equates to 80 percent of all smartphones in the country.

Meanwhile, we are seeing a digital divide between centralized and decentralized approaches. (From a high level, the debate turns on whether pseudonymous data is stored on centralized servers or stays on the phone.) Privacy advocates may be relatively relaxed about a solution with Apple and Google on board, but the question of voluntary mass adoption of the app remains uncertain.

Read more: Money Reimagined: A World Where Privacy and Saving Lives Can Coexist

“It’s hard to predict,” said cypherpunk Harry Halpin, the CEO of privacy startup Nym Technologies. “I honestly think a relatively small number of people will install the app. We don’t want to live in a world where we have to have an app on our phone to go outside.”

A big problem for a voluntary app comes down to the interaction between privacy and economics, says Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University. 

“If the app’s voluntary, nobody has an incentive to use it except tinkerers and people who religiously comply with whatever the government asks,” Anderson said in an April blog post

Read more: For Contact Tracing to Work, Americans Will Have to Trust Google and Apple

Studies on privacy regulation and technology incentives in the context of…

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