In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to start opening up their economies, many countries have started to implement contact tracing as one of the measures. Traditional contact tracing, where a public health official interviews an infected person to determine the places and people they came into contact with, is still in place. However, the traditional method requires a lot of resources and time, is heavily reliant on the recollections of the infected individual, and cannot identify people that may have been exposed to the illness in question if the infected person did not know them personally. The traditional method of contact tracing is also not scalable to the extent needed to control the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, many countries already use or started to develop – either themselves or in cooperation with large tech companies – cell phone applications tracing the movement and contacts of individuals (i.e. contact tracing apps).

These apps are used to identify persons who were in contact with an infected individual. Contact tracing apps store location data and/or data indicating proximity to other devices. Should the user become sick, the app is able to alert others who were closeby or in contact with the individual that they have been exposed to COVID-19 and should take precautionary measures, such as testing or quarantine. When systematically applied, contact tracing can break the chains of transmission of an infectious disease and should thus be an essential public health tool for controlling infectious disease outbreaks.

The implementation of contact tracing apps in any form raises many issues and concerns. Important considerations include the effectiveness of the contact tracing through apps (adoption rates, exclusion of certain segments of population), technological challenges (limitations of bluetooth technology), and impacts on privacy and human rights, as well as issues of interoperability of contact tracing apps launched by different countries and the role of the international organisations in this setting.

 

This page covers contact tracing apps. Click here for a wider digital policy overview of the COVID-19 outbreak.