Digital contact tracing is the main technological issue currently facing countries that are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper explains the concept of digital contact tracing and highlights its importance as a helpful tool for human epidemiological investigations and for minimizing the spread of the novel coronavirus. It goes on to survey the international scale of policy tools that have been selected for the purpose of digital contact tracing — ranging from China, which imposed mandatory means on all citizens that incorporate artificial intelligence and generate a “health code”; to Asian democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan, which have implemented intrusive digital tracking tools that are run by civil agencies, with no involvement of the secret services; to the democratic countries of Europe as well as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, which employ digital contact tracing only with citizens’ consent. Israel, it was found, has positioned itself between the Asian democracies and China.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler
Senior Fellow - Israel Democracy Institute
Head, Democracy in the Information Age Program - Israel Democracy Institute
Rachel Aridor Hershkowitz
Researcher - Israel Democracy Institute
We believe that a new outbreak of the pandemic in the winter of 2020-2021 is liable to prompt countries to choose one of two options. The first is to refrain from using digital contact-tracing technology because of its infringement on privacy. We believe this would be the wrong choice, because it means losing a major technological advantage for coping with the virus and would merely reinforce the mistaken argument that privacy and innovation are incompatible. The second option, which we suspect would be adopted by “weak democracies,” is comprehensive involuntary digital contract tracing, in which the data is collected from cellular providers for centralized processing, relying in part on security agencies and secret services.
To avoid falling into the second scenario, which would deal a serious blow to the right to privacy and to human rights in general, we propose an intermediate model that can provide solutions to the problems that arise in the use of cellphone apps for contact tracing. Our proposal is that countries adopt apps specifically designed for digital contact tracing and that derive their data from users’ personal devices, with their consent, and then make use of the information solely for contact tracing if a user tests positive for the coronavirus. The information extracted from the app would be limited not only with regard to the purpose for which it is used, but also with regard to who is permitted to access it — that is, only civilian government agencies with no investigative and enforcement powers. Governments must make special efforts to encourage the public to install the app, with full transparency. In addition, steps must be taken to devise solutions for population groups that do not use smartphones, such as by means of smartcards designed for this purpose or of wearable technology that can receive and transmit Bluetooth signals.