Recommendation: Do Not Install or Use Centralized Server Coronavirus (COVID-19) Contact Tracing Apps

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Everyone, I hope you and yours are safe and well during this unprecedented pandemic.

As I write this, various governments are rushing to implement — or have already implemented — a wide range of different smartphone apps purporting to be for public health COVID-19 “contact tracing” purposes. 

The landscape of these is changing literally hour by hour, but I want to emphasize MOST STRONGLY that all of these apps are not created equal, and that I urge you not to install various of these unless you are required to by law — which can indeed be the case in countries such as China and Poland, just to name two examples.

Without getting into deep technical details here, there are basically two kinds of these contact tracing apps. The first is apps that send your location or other contact-related data to centralized servers (whether the data being sent is claimed to be “anonymous” or not). Regardless of promised data security and professed limitations on government access to and use of such data, I do not recommend voluntarily choosing to install and/or use these apps under any circumstances.

The other category of contact tracing apps uses local phone storage and never sends your data to centralized servers. This is by far the safer category in which resides the recently announced Apple-Google Bluetooth contact tracing API, being adopted in some countries (including now in Germany, which just announced that due to privacy concerns it has changed course from its original plan of using centralized servers). In general, installing and using these local storage contact tracing apps presents a vastly less problematic and far safer situation compared with centralized server contact tracing apps.

Even if you personally have 100% faith that your own government will “do no wrong” with centralized server contact tracing apps — either now or in the future under different leadership — keep in mind that many other persons in your country may not be as naive as you are, and will likely refuse to install and/or use centralized server contact tracing apps unless forced to do so by authorities.

Very large-scale acceptance and use of any contact tracing apps are necessary for them to be effective for genuine pandemic-related public health purposes. If enough people won’t use them, they are essentially worthless for their purported purposes.

As I have previously noted, various governments around the world are salivating at the prospect of making mass surveillance via smartphones part of the so-called “new normal” — with genuine public health considerations as secondary goals at best.

We must all work together to bring the COVID-19 disaster to an end. But we must not permit this tragic situation to hand carte blanche permissions to governments to create and sustain ongoing privacy nightmares in the process. 

Stay well, all.

–Lauren–