Germany dumps centralized COVID-19 contact tracing plan, backs Apple – Google approach

Backing an approach supported by Apple and Google along with a growing number of other European countries, Germany changed course on Sunday over which type of smartphone technology it wanted to use to attempt a COVID-19 contact tracing architecture, ditching its plan for a centralized system.

Here’s an illustration of the Apple – Google coronavirus contact-tracing proposal methodology:
Germany COVID-19 contact tracing. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool
Apple Google COVID. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool

Douglas Busvine for Reuters:

Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Health Minister Jens Spahn told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Berlin would adopt a ‘decentralized’ approach to digital contact tracing, in so doing abandoning a home-grown alternative.

Nations are rushing to develop apps to assess at scale the risk of catching COVID-19, where the chain of infection is proving hard to break because the flu-like disease can be spread by those showing no symptoms…

Germany as recently as Friday backed an initiative called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), whose centralized approach was criticized by hundreds of scientists in an open letter last Monday as opening the way to state surveillance. “We will back a decentralized architecture that will only store contacts on devices. That is good for trust,” Braun told ARD public television in an interview.

Although Bluetooth-based smartphone contact tracing is an untested technology and early results in countries like Singapore are modest, its development is already redefining the relationship between the state and individual.

Germany’s change of tack would bring its approach into line with that taken by Apple and Alphabet’s Google, which said this month they would develop new tools to support decentralized contact tracing.

Importantly, Apple’s iPhone would under the proposed setup only work properly with decentralized protocols such as DP-3T, which has been developed by a Swiss-led team and has been backed by Switzerland, Austria and Estonia.

MacDailyNews Take: Again, it’s not going to work anyway, but at least let’s attempt to preserve privacy while we hand out contact tracing apps like pacifiers.

Contact tracing apps are nothing more than pablum for the masses: “Want to feel safe while getting back to work, shopping, going out to eat, vacationing, etc.? There’s an app for that.”

Apple and Google are very likely taking the lead on this thing because they want to be out front of myriad privacy issues, not letting governments proven to overreach and which love centralized programs dictate the direction of contact tracing.

Even Singapore, where citizens follow the rules, has a COVID-19 contact tracing app which has been installed by just 12% of the population). That’s at least 48% short of the lowest threshold for “digital herd immunity.” In Singapore, no less.

No matter how well-designed the system is on paper, in practice too few people will install and use it*, while reliance on Bluetooth connectivity (range, materials penetrance, public transport, etc.) will result in myriad false positive issues.

This seems like something designed to provide a digital security blanket to help increase confidence for going back to work more than anything else.

*In the U.S., beyond the obvious constitutional rights issues, 18% of the U.S. population, or nearly 1-in-5 people, do not even have a smartphone. So, with one of every 5th person roaming about by default, not to mention all of the opt-outs, contact tracing via iOS and Android smartphones would be more of a feel-good security blanket than a useful, working system.

More about the myriad issues of Bluetooth COVID-19 contact tracing apps can be found in our Takes here and here.

10 Comments

      1. jrock and SamLowry,

        Despite the obvious genius displayed in both of your replies, please explain how this will work when even Singapore can’t goad their very compliant citizenry into installing and using a contact tracing app? Also please explain how this will work when Bluetooth works through wallboard? Imagine a housing project, built cheaply, and mass transit – the false positives will be everywhere.

        MacDailyNews is right. This is a “feel-good” thing to assuage the nervous masses.

        1. Even if less than 50% of people use it, many potentially infected people get notified much earelier, so they can get tested. This lowers their chance to infect others, and the whole reproduction number gets lowered.
          Nobody said that this should be the only measure.
          The App will be helpful because it means no restriction when you’re not infected. Unlike a total lockdown. More than feel-good!
          Singapore is anecdotal data, the app was different (with useless location tracing, much more invasive), …
          Walls dampen the Bluetooth signal and hence act as if the distance was significantly larger. These things have already been tested by the German army.

          1. Just wrote this is another thread:

            The few people who actually download and use the app are all going to be told they might be infected due to the inherent issues with Bluetooth and, because a small percentage of people will actually use the app, it won’t tell you when you’ve maybe come in contact with the vast majority of people with COVID-19.

            In short, the app is not going to work as advertised. It’s a pacifier. Download the app and it’ll eventually tell you to get tested. Perhaps several times per day. You don’t even need a working system for that. Just make an app with a timer that says “Get Tested!” after 10 minutes in use.

            1. closer than 1.5 or 2 meters for 15 minutes. That’s the envisioned trigger.
              We’ll see what works better, science (Europe) or Lysol (US).

        2. Hello Sarah,

          My responses below:

          “please explain how this will work when even Singapore can’t goad their very compliant citizenry”

          I don’t live in Singapore, so I cannot provide an explanation as to why the people of Singapore are not loading this app.

          As I have pointed out on other posts of this topic, South Korea has implemented mass contact tracing (along with mass testing) with very successful results:

          South Korea

          Coronavirus Cases:
          10,738

          Deaths:
          243

          United States:

          Coronavirus Cases:
          990,290

          Deaths:
          55,843

          Because of their success, South Korea’s is much further along in loosening COVID-19 social restrictions than we are in the US:

          https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-18/seoul-s-full-cafes-apple-store-lines-show-mass-testing-success

          Contact tracing works. It identifies who should be quarantined before spreading the virus to others.

          “Also please explain how this will work when Bluetooth works through wallboard? Imagine a housing project, built cheaply, and mass transit – the false positives will be everywhere.”

          So I’m not a developer on the project, but I’m just going to guess that the developers at Apple and Google know about false positives and will work to mitigate them.

          Bluetooth LE has the ability to measure signal strength, which can be used to mitigate false positives.

          From WIRED:

          https://www.wired.com/story/apple-google-contact-tracing-strengths-weaknesses/

          Other false positives could come from an entirely different problem: Bluetooth leaks through walls, while viruses don’t. It’s hardly useful to be warned that you were exposed to Covid-19 just because your upstairs neighbor or someone in the adjoining apartment building was infected.

          On this point, the TCN Coalition and the Apple/Google joint project argue that Bluetooth signal strength nonetheless serves as a proxy for sharing airspace with someone. Apple and Google plan to use Received Signal Strength Indication as a metric for determining if phones are in proximity, calibrated to account for the Bluetooth radios and ranges of different phones. Both distance and obstacles like walls diminish RSSI, meaning someone in the neighboring apartment would likely appear equivalent to someone well outside of Covid-19 transmission range. Google and Apple say they’re also considering blending in other factors as well, like using proximity sensors to determine if a phone is inside a bag or a pocket, which might diminish RSSI but not Covid-19 transmission.

          I believe Apple and Google will be able to reduce false positives through user testing.

          If I do come within range of someone in a mass transit setting who tests positive for COVID-19, I would want to know so that I could get tested myself.

          And if what if there are some positives? With mass testing available, you’ll be able to quickly determine if you are infected.

          To those skeptical of this solution, I will remind you of the famous Peter Drucker quote:

          “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

          Contact tracing + mass testing = COVID-19 management.

  1. Don’t surrender your liberties because of this flu. Once those liberties are gone, you better learn Chinese, as this will become a police state (The US)

  2. 18% of people in the USA do not have a smartphone… of course the study says:
    Individuals of any age who own at least one smartphone and use the mobile phone/smartphone(s) at least once per month.

    This would include kids and people in nursing homes, etc. A far MORE useful metric would be how many aged 16–70 have mobile phones.

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