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Without a trace: Why did corona apps fail?
  1. Lucie White1,
  2. Philippe van Basshuysen1,2
  1. 1Institut für Philosophie, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Hannover, Germany
  2. 2Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, The London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lucie White, Institut für Philosophie, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Hannover 30167, Germany; lucie.white{at}


At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, high hopes were put on digital contact tracing, using mobile phone apps to record and immediately notify contacts when a user reports as infected. Such apps can now be downloaded in many countries, but as second waves of COVID-19 are raging, these apps are playing a less important role than anticipated. We argue that this is because most countries have opted for app configurations that cannot provide a means of rapidly informing users of likely infections while avoiding too many false positive reports. Mathematical modelling suggests that differently configured apps have the potential to do this. These require, however, that some pseudonymised data be stored on a central server, which privacy advocates have cautioned against. We contend that their influential arguments are subject to two fallacies. First, they have tended to one-sidedly focus on the risks that centralised data storage entails for privacy, while paying insufficient attention to the fact that inefficient contact tracing involves ethical risks too. Second, while the envisioned system does entail risks of breaches, such risks are also present in decentralised systems, which have been falsely presented as ‘privacy preserving by design’. When these points are understood, it becomes clear that we must rethink our approach to digital contact tracing in our fight against COVID-19.

  • COVID-19
  • ethics
  • public health ethics
  • public policy
  • technology/risk assessment

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  • Contributors Both authors contributed to the conception, drafting and revision of the manuscript.

  • Funding This research was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation within the project 'Digital Contact Tracing, Privacy, and Discrimination: On the Ethics of Fighting Corona'.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Data availability statement There are no data in this work.

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