Germany Rolls Out Coronavirus-Tracing App to Fight Second Wave

(Bloomberg) --

Germany called on its citizens to download a delayed app designed to help prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus, betting that civic duty is enough to get people to use the software and rejecting criticism that it will be ineffective.

The goal for the new tracing app -- a joint project between telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom AG and software developer SAP SE -- is to help break infection chains early and allow the country to manage the return to normality more effectively.

“It’s not the first corona app in the world to be launched, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best,” Helge Braun, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, said at a presentation in Berlin. “Downloading and using it is a small step for each of us, but a big step for fighting the pandemic.”

The technology was unveiled on Tuesday by four cabinet officials and executives from two of Germany’s largest technology companies. The high-profile lineup indicates the importance of the project, which has been dogged by concerns over data security.

The smartphone application will monitor those who have contracted Covid-19 and alert people who have come into contact with them. People who refuse to download the app won’t be penalized, but there are also no tangible incentives to use it. It’s even voluntary for an infected individual to allow the app to inform other users.

No Panacea

Germany Rolls Out Coronavirus-Tracing App to Fight Second Wave

“It’s not a panacea, it’s not a free pass,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said at the presentation in Berlin, alongside Braun, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht as well as Deutsche Telekom’s Chief Executive Officer Tim Hoettges and SAP’s Chief Technology Officer Juergen Mueller. “The app serves to avoid a second wave.”

The system is being introduced after Germany brought its virus outbreak under control relatively quickly, with the daily number of new cases far below the peak of close to 7,000 in late March. But there have been hot spots. In the Berlin neighborhood of Neukoelln, an apartment building was put under quarantine after at least 52 people caught the disease there, according to local media reports.

Governments around the world have been debating how to monitor citizens to help slow the spread of the virus. The U.K. National Health Service has said it will build its own app, joining countries like Australia and Singapore, where such a technology has already been introduced.

All companies in Germany’s benchmark DAX index will promote the app, which already has more than 100,000 users, according to Telekom’s Hoettges.

Digitalization Test

The project is a key test of the government’s ability to implement digitalization projects. Modernizing Germany’s bureaucracy and upgrading the country’s technology has long been a buzzword in Berlin but has made little headway in reality.

Initially, the German government had considered using a centralized system which could allow someone’s contacts to be uploaded to government servers where authorities would then decide who to inform of a possible infection. But after protests from data-protection groups, the government abandoned the plan at the end of April and brought on Deutsche Telekom and SAP.

Under the decentralized system used by the app, anonymous data about nearby mobile phones is collected using Bluetooth technology. Once an infection is confirmed, that information is sent to a server and relied to others without revealing the patient’s identity. People using the app would then get a warning and a recommendation on what to do next.

In May, SAP CEO Christian Klein said the company and its partners, which also include Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc., were working under time pressure to ensure data security, scalability and user experience of the product.

Norway stopped the use of its virus-tracing app after the country’s data-privacy watchdog raised flags that it’s too invasive now that infection rates in the country have slowed.

In Germany, collecting personal data is particularly sensitive given the nation’s history. First under the Nazis and then in the communist East, citizens were closely monitored and controlled. To that end, the software was left voluntary to avoid an uproar.

But its success will depend on how many people sign up for it, and that puts pressure on German leaders to promote it as a helpful personal tool.

“We are finding ourselves more and more in situations where we don’t know the people around us -- at demonstrations, in the train, in the bus,” Spahn told ZDF television earlier Tuesday. “The app makes a difference there because it can provide information about contacts from the previous two weeks.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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