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Smartphone track and trace applications

Many governments have seen a possible way out of the coronavirus crisis in digital technologies: anti-COVID test and trace applications that use Bluetooth… But there is an inherent dilemma linked to the use of these systems: on the one hand, they need maximum participation in order to be effective; on the other hand, this effectiveness is difficult to evaluate and public interest may well start to wane.

In addition, these applications need to be able to guarantee to users that their personal data details are protected while tracking them closely through everyday life. In order to reinforce public confidence and thereby encourage high levels of use, the WHO (World Health Organisation) has underlined the need for these applications to be carefully monitored. France, for example, has sought expert advice from eight qualified companies. The applications raise new questions; the necessity of providing a clear legal framework, notably where personal data has been collected (Bluetooth connection details for example); or agreements on data sharing and application compatibility in neighbouring countries. So these applications carry certain risks concerning confidentiality while the benefits they bring remain uncertain. 

What are the potential numbers of participants for these applications? Studies carried out in April and May 2020 showed that in countries such as the United States, Switzerland and Italy, between 55 and 70% of adults were prepared to download a smartphone track and trace application. But these figures are no longer applicable. Even in countries where is private data well protected, numbers of downloads is below expected levels. At the moment of writing, the Australian application has been downloaded 6,5 million times (26% of the population), the Italian version by 13,4% of the population, and in France by 1,5 million people (2,3% of the population).

As the following diagram shows:

How should this data be interpreted? Firstly, it should be noted that the number of downloads probably does not reflect the real number of users. In addition, it shouldn’t be forgotten that elderly or disadvantaged people are less likely to use the application if they don’t have a smartphone or a mobile package with unlimited data. These new technologies can exacerbate inequalities in terms of available health care.

Finally it should be borne in mind that these technologies don’t give out information on staying safe. Even though they allow users to be contacted in situations of possible contamination, only an individually responsible attitude in following health recommendations (testing, quarantine, social distancing…) will stem the epidemic’s progress.

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