Governments are trying to encourage (and in rare cases, force) people to start using contact tracing apps besides also using surgical masks, surgical gloves, disinfectant, and practicing social distancing.

Not familiar with them? They’re basically mobile apps that alert you when you come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Or when you visit a place where people infected with the virus went to. To do that, they either use Bluetooth (with Google and Apple’s new API) or location tracking. Here’s how they both work:

  • Bluetooth – Phones using the same app will share Bluetooth tokens between them. The app checks the tokens every day to see if any user reported testing positive for COVID-19. If they did, it sends out exposure alerts to all devices that have that token.
  • Location tracking – Apps use WiFi signals, cellular signals, and GPS data to keep a log of everywhere you go throughout your day. If a user reports a positive diagnosis, the app checks if you’ve been to the same places as they have. If you did, the app will send you exposure alerts.

Sounds pretty interesting, right? It’s easy to see why so many governments are hopeful these apps can help flatten the curve.

Still, you have to wonder – just how reliable contact tracing apps are?

Well, we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but – as it stands – they’re not very accurate. Here are the mains problems we see with these apps:

They Rely on Voluntary Reports

Data collection and tracking are done automatically. But, ultimately, you’re still the one who has to submit a report saying you tested positive for COVID-19 or developed coronavirus symptoms. If you don’t do that, the app won’t alert the people you came in contact with.

Now, we’re not saying you wouldn’t do that. But would everyone else do it? It only takes one person lying or forgetting to submit a report for dozens of others to get infected.

And they won’t even know they’re infected until they get tested or develop symptoms. By that time, they would have already infected other others (and so on and so on).

They Don’t Account for When People Take Precautions

Okay, so the app knows you were in close proximity to someone infected with COVID-19 while you were waiting for your morning coffee. Or that you visited the same supermarket as someone who tested positive.

What the app doesn’t know is that you might have taken all the necessary precautions – mask, gloves, and disinfectant. Or that there might have been a wall or window separating you from the infected person.

That doesn’t matter. The app will still send you exposure alerts. At best, they could become annoying.

But here’s the worst-case scenario – you have a very busy day, plenty of things on your mind, so you forget whether you took all the steps to protect yourself when you were out and about. The false-positive alerts could make you doubt yourself, and cause you to self-quarantine for no good reason, putting your life on hold yet again.

Adoption Influences Results

If only a small percentage of the population uses contact tracing apps, they won’t be effective. Instead of helping, they’ll lead to a bigger increase in COVID-19 cases.

Why?

Because they will instill a false sense of security. There won’t be as many exposure alerts, so people will start letting their guard down. They’ll stop wearing masks or using disinfectants so often, leaving their bodies exposed to the virus.

Right now, researchers speculate that around 60% of the population would need to use these apps for them to be really effective.

And, currently, things aren’t looking too good in countries where contact tracing apps are being used. Here are some numbers:

  • A little over 30% of Americans said they would download and use these apps.
  • Singapore has only seen a 20% adoption rate.
  • Iceland reported that only 38% of people downloaded the app.

Low Battery Gets in the Way

These apps have to keep running in the background or foreground for them to be effective. That automatically means your phone’s battery will run out quicker. Not to mention you might have other apps you use daily running in the background too, causing even more strain.

If the battery runs out when you’re halfway through your day, the app won’t be able to keep track of where you’ve been or who you’ve interacted with anymore.

Sure, developers could do their best to make the apps as lightweight as possible. But that still won’t be enough. What if, one day, you rush through your morning routine, and forget to charge your phone before you leave? Or you forget to bring a portable charger or USB battery with you?

Your phone will eventually die, rendering the app completely useless.

People Can Intentionally Submit Fake Reports

Remember how we said people can choose not to submit their positive tests?

Well, they can also choose to submit fake diagnoses too. Not only can that lead to pointless self-quarantines and visits to the hospital (getting in the way of people who actually need to go to the hospital), but it can also cause stores, supermarkets, coffee shops, restaurants, and other places to shut down.

Why would someone do that?

Maybe they’re a desperate politician who wants to lower voting participation in a district. Or maybe they’re an unscrupulous businessman who wants to take down their competitors. Or maybe they just want to “troll” people.

Whichever the case, the result is the same – the apps don’t deliver accurate data.

Here’s Another Problem – These Apps Can Harm Your Privacy

Besides not being very reliable, contact tracing apps can also violate your privacy.

How?

By requesting a lot of personal information from you. There’s no reason such an app should know what your name, phone number, gender, occupation, and age are. And they don’t need access to your phone’s contacts either.

Furthermore, they should store your data on your own phone, not on centralized servers outside of your control. Also, they should never have a clause in their ToS or Privacy Policy that says they can share your data with third parties like private companies and advertisers.

Yet many apps do exactly that (Aarogya Setu, Healthy Together App, Covi-ID, and ProteGo Safe, for example).

Want to See If the Apps in Your Area Are Privacy-Friendly?

Then check out this contact tracing apps comparison guide from ProPrivacy. It analyzes and compares 54 apps from around the world, ranking them in terms of how well they handle user privacy.

Go ahead and check if the apps available in your country or state show up there. If they do, see what things they do (or don’t do) to keep your privacy and data safe.

Do You Think Contact Tracing Apps Are a Step in the Right Direction?

Or do you feel like they’re not worth putting your privacy at risk? At least in their current state where it’s pretty easy to abuse them, and they’re not extremely accurate either.

Tell us what you think in the comments below or on social media. Oh, and if you know other reasons why these apps might or might not be reliable, please let us know.