NetMission Insight: Better Model for Track-and-trace

Written by Jenna Fung

How much has our life changed since the pandemic? From how we attend our classes and work, to how we do our daily grocery shopping. Undeniably, technology and the Internet have “saved” us and have enabled our society to function even during the worst period of this global crisis. 

Following the lift of lockdown or restrictions, a contact-tracing app is claimed to be necessary to control the spread of COVID-19 in many countries. The term “track-and-trace” was purely used in respect of parcels, but at the start of the century, it applied to humans too.

Rolling out such mobile apps gives government officials a vital tool to limit contagion risk, also meaning that they get unprecedented access to our personal data. While naturally, the concerns over public health must come first, the rising concern of data privacy or surveillance on citizens, brought by the tracing app can never be neglected.

Which countries are using contact tracing?

The simple answer is “every country”.  The only differences are whether it is compulsory, and which models they are adopting. Whether a centralized or Apple-Google Model is being adopted in one’s nation, such a technological method is supposed to help address the pandemic more effectively and help get us back to live our “normal life” sooner. 

Asian countries were the first to launch tracing apps. For example, China launched several that use geopositioning via mobile network, or data compiled from train and airline travel or checkpoints on highways. People are ranked in different colors based on their travel history and their contacts with infected people. It determines if they can enter certain public areas. The use of the app was compulsory and it seemed to play a key role in halting contagions starting in April 2020. (France-Presse, 2020)

While in Hong Kong, Leave Home Safe is launched but the practice is voluntary. This is for sure privacy advocates would doubt the data privacy and security of the app, but even the general public is concerning the retention and the use of personal data collected. According to its website, it states that “Personal data will not be kept longer than is necessary for the fulfillment of the purpose for which it is collected.” (OGCIO, 2021). Undeniably, the privacy policy is rather vague in general, so the effectiveness of the tracing app is questionable. Officials of these territories surely claim the data are encrypted, but those pledges have failed to reassure many. 

If a centralized database is a concern, is there a better model?

Compared to the centralized model, which is adopted by many countries, including Australia and Singapore, I would prefer a decentralized model introduced by Apple and Google, as it is praised to provide a stronger guarantee of anonymity. 

Concerns about data privacy and protection are rather acute in Europe, resulting in more European countries, including Germany and Italy, opting to use the Apple-Google model when they are developing the contact-tracing app. The UK has also ditched the centralized model and switched to a decentralized model back in June 2020 (Kelion, 2020).

Though the major difference between the two models is whether the phone provides its own anonymized identity only to the centralized database, or it provides the anonymized ID with codes gathered from other phones. (Criddle & Kelion, 2020)

Figure 1. Centralised v decentralised apps (Criddle & Kelion, 2020)

Is it truly a dichotomy that we must either sacrifice privacy for public health or put public health at risk to preserve human rights? Or, without such technology, would our economic activities and movements continue to be restricted, in itself, another form of human rights violation. What is the balance, or will it always be a never-ending paradox of control and freedom? 


About the writer

Jenna Fung is the community engagement lead of DotAsia Organisation. She initially joined NetMission.Asia in 2017 as NetMission Ambassador. She is passionate about data privacy and protection, surveillance, social innovation, and cultural exchange and highly interested in youth mobility. She has been interned in different fields including business management, company secretarial services, and marketing and public relations in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Seville. In her personal life, she enjoys language learning, reading, and traveling.