Study: public need more trust in Covid-19 apps

Downstalling the SwissCovid app © Keystone / Christian Beutler

Coronavirus smartphone apps need more trust from the public in order to be fully effective, Zurich researchers have warned. Governments need to do more to break the cycle of mistrust.

This content was published on November 13, 2020 - 10:01

In an article published in ScienceExternal link on Friday, the team from the federal technology institute ETH Zurich said many governments – including Switzerland’s with the SwissCovid app - had seen digital health technologies as a promising tool to address coronavirus disease, particularly digital contact tracing apps (DCT) that trace proximity to other devices and GPS-based apps that collect geolocation data. But most national DCT apps did not have the expected rate of uptake.

“This can be attributed to a number of uncertainties regarding general awareness of DCT apps, privacy risks, and the actual effectiveness of DCT, as well as public attitudes toward a potentially pervasive form of digital surveillance,” the authors said.

In the United States, Switzerland and Italy, the number of people who said they would download an app was between 55% and 70% in April and May. But the actual number of users has turned out to be mostly under 30%.

National contact tracing apps were often rolled out without engaging the public in any phase of the process, the authors noted.

“In democratic countries, this is likely to undermine trust in technological solutions, especially if they embody a pervasive surveillance logic that may well appear at odds with democratic ideals.”

Public involvement

They recommend that the involvement of civil society representatives, advocacy groups, and non-governmental organisations in app oversight bodies. Public involvement should be seen as key to the adaption process, they argue.

In Switzerland, the SwissCovid App has been downloaded by 2.7 million people but is only in active use by around 1.8 million people.

In October epidemiologist Marcel Salathé, who led the development of the SwissCovid app, said Switzerland needed a major communications push to improve uptake of the app.

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