Privacy-loving Germany launches coronavirus track-and-trace app – how does it hold up?

By Elliot Leavy, former editor of the technology and innovation magazine maize and editor of culture magazine BOZO. He has written for numerous publications around the world focussing on technology, belief systems, and culture.

The German government has launched its coronavirus tracing app and insists it’s so secure that even ministers can use it. Smartphone apps to track the spread of the coronavirus have been met with mixed reception the world over.

On Monday, Norway halted its coronavirus contact-tracing app, Smittestopp, following concerns raised by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority, which claimed that due to the nation’s slow rate of infection, the privacy-protection tradeoff was no longer justified. 

In the UK, the government has grappled with a great many problems in relation to its own app. Not only has the contractor behind their tracing app been found to have a shoddy relationship with privacy in the past, but in general, the app has been bogged down by dither and delay. 

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So how has Germany’s own experience played out? Owing to the history of dictatorship in the country, a person’s right to their personal data even after death is rooted in the constitution.  

This is why the German government insists users will have full control over their data, and will never be forced to download the app. Similar to the UK, it is up to the user to confirm their test results and start the tracing process.  

So, how does this work?  

Since the app’s launch on Tuesday, Germany’s infection rate (known as the R0 or R-naught) bounced up as citizens began downloading the voluntary app. 

The government has been trying to keep the figure below 1.0, which would mean the virus is failing to find new hosts.  

According to the latest daily report by the Robert Koch Institute, as of Monday, the R-naught was at 1.19 compared with 1.05 the day before.

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The app works by using low-energy Bluetooth technology, which can scan the user’s surroundings and confirm ‘digital handshakes’ with confirmed Covid-19 cases. 

If someone using the app tests positive, they can tell those who they have come into contact with that they, too, may have the coronavirus.  

However, as some labs are not equipped to transmit test results electronically, users may have to phone a hotline number to report themselves as Covid-positive.  

The obvious problem with testimonials is that they open the door to trolling, which in turn can lead to mass panic as people are warned they might have the disease when in fact there was no cause for alarm.  

The debate begins 

Opposition MPs have called for a new law to stop businesses from forcing users to download the app due to pressures or incentives. The risk being that a person would not be allowed to travel without the app, in effect forcing them to have it if they wish to have a normal life.  

In a statement on Monday, the German government insisted that “voluntary means voluntary.” 

Read more

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Concerns remain, however, as to how a track-and-trace app could ever exist side-by-side with privacy rights.  

Linus Neuman, a spokesman for Germany’s Chaos Computer Club, which describes itself as Europe’s largest hackers association, stated that early iterations of the app contained “absolutely unacceptable methods.”  

Although the group praised the government for allowing the public to criticize the app during its development, it has yet to endorse it fully.  

Yet, when asked whether the app meets security standards for top-tier officials, Bjoern Gruenewaelder, a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, stated that the country’s IT security agency had been involved since the beginning of development.  

“I presume that from their side there can be an unreserved recommendation to members of the federal government to use this app,” said Gruenewaelder. 

The German government says the app cost €20 million ($22.7 million) to develop and will require €2.5 million to €3.5 million per month to operate. 

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Health Minister Jens Spahn, Chancellery Minister Helge Braun, RKI President Lothar Wieler, and executives from Deutsche Telekom AG and SAP AG will hold a news conference later on Tuesday to present the new app.

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