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The Corona tracing app and the question of trust

Its benefits are undeniable, it’s free and works almost flawlessly. Yet, the Corona tracing app of the German government still causes mixed feelings in many people. Why is this the case?

The Corona tracing app of the German Federal government has been available since mid June. Its aim is to digitalize the previously manual tracking of people infected with COVID-19 and thus increasing efficiency.

On the 6th of June, the app was downloaded 15 million times — 18% of all German citizens have it on their phones. A remarkable success after just four weeks. Since its launch, however, the download rate slowed down, less and less people are downloading the app (fig. 1). So what about the other 82% of the population? Why didn’t they download the app? Is it due to unwillingness and laziness or are there real privacy concerns? Let’s take a closer look.

fig. 1 number of downloads of the app since its launch

How does the corona tracing app work?

The user’s smartphone measures the distance and duration of the encounter to other app users via bluetooth. Encounters that meet a certain duration threshold are stored and the users’ smartphones exchange codes with each other — these randomly generated codes are only stored on the smartphones.

If a user is infected he can enter it into the app. Through the previously exchanged codes, all other users that had an encounter with the now infected user are informed and can test themselves. Thereby, an efficient tracking of infection chains is possible without disclosing any personal data.

High degree of transparency during development phase

The launch of the tracing app was preceded by a public discussion which attracted a lot of attention. In April (right in the middle of the development phase) a broad debate took place making the data storage of the tracing app a subject of discussion. In the end, a decentralized approach was pushed through, so that the above mentioned codes are solely stored on the smartphones. Much to the delight of data protectionists.

The app’s source code has always been publicly accessible as the federal government knows: For the app to be a success it had to be as transparent as possible. Therefore, the app was accompanied by a massive marketing campaign. With success at first: Only 17% of the general public had no clue about the efforts of a tracing app by the federal government. A good basis for a successful app launch.

Privacy concerns persist

Even though the app started off well and has been communicated transparently to the public, many Germans remained in doubt about the app. In particular, the question of data protection became more troublesome: Okta, an identity management provider, published a study which states that 81% of Germans fear an interference in their privacy. Another 84% are worried that their personal information is not secure and can be misused.

Reasonable privacy concerns are actually limited with the Corona tracing app since it doesn’t collect any personal data. The randomly generated codes are also not stored on a central server and after two weeks on the user’s smartphone they are deleted. Still, the stagnating download rate suggests that there are a lot of people who are not confident with using the app. Neither the communicative measures by the Federal government nor the broad and public discussion were able to convince the majority of citizens so far.

So what is it that drives the population? Is the corona tracing app ultimately doomed to failure because the Germans’ trust in the protection of their data is irrevocably destroyed? And if so, what destroyed the trust?

A question of trust

The fact that citizens have little hope for the trustworthy handling of their data can hardly be blamed on them. News of data scandals often make the headlines: The Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example, or the occurrence in late 2019 in which millions of patient data records were left unprotected, or Google’s collection of location data even though it was disabled in the privacy settings. Such incidents remain in the minds of people and reinforce the image of an insecure digital world.

The lost trust in digital products and services first has to be rebuilt. This applies both to a helpful tracing app as well as all other services in the digital realm. For users to gain confidence in digital products, companies and governments must communicate their services and the storage and use of personal data conscientiously and transparently. Even in the event of possible data leakages, early and clear communicative measures can be a decisive factor in ensuring that the trust that has been built up over a long period of time is not completely lost.

“Digital trust is becoming a new measure of how we create and consume digital products” — Sven Kniest, Regional Vice President Central and Eastern Europe at Okta

In regards to the Corona tracing app, we are not only talking about a technical challenge, but a largely communication challenge. The Federal government has to continue its transparent and people-oriented communication. In addition, the legislator can do more to create trust in the digital world: Data protections laws that guarantee users more rights are slowly but surely changing the way the digital world is perceived. The message: As an individual, you are not at the mercy of big tech companies and can very well protect your digital self and your personal information. David vs Goliath digitally remastered. EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is a promising first step — others have to follow.

If you want to get to know more about trust in the digital world, click here.

If you enjoyed reading this article and want to get to know more about digital trust, you can follow our blog and Twitter. More information on how to protect your personal data can be found on our website: helixid.io

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helix id Team

helix id Team

Our vision is to provide a verified Digital Identity to every European citizen. Pioneer spirit and Blockchain technology make it possible!

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