Tech And Covid-19: Open-source Needed For Acceptance And Success of Contact Tracing Apps


In order to navigate out of Covid-19 lockdown, Amanda Brock, CEO at OpenUK, suggests the open-source is needed for the acceptance of contact tracing apps

The inevitable and necessary responses to Covid-19 — from the lockdown itself to the underlying and rapidly approved legislation behind it to the contact tracing apps that are now being developed — raise concerns about our civil liberties that at a different time would all have been hotly debated over a considerable time period. Thanks to Covid-19, time is no longer a luxury at humanity’s disposal.

Contact tracing apps — public acceptance and open source

Scientific consensus has not been reached on the impact that these will have, even though they are being positioned as necessary to help end the lockdown.

Tracking those who have had Covid-19 is a non-technical problem that will not be fixed by technology, but of course, technology can provide a tool to facilitate tracking. Public acceptance of the apps is also critical to their utility. If that public acceptance is not achieved, then we risk yoyoing between lockdown and freedom, ultimately prolonging the length of time where the economy will be impacted.

The moral requirement on the public to accept these apps will be high and governments, therefore, hold a heavy burden of accountability for the choices they make under their emergency powers, as well as the long-term impact these will have. The only way to reassure the public that their privacy is adequately protected and to achieve this acceptance is to open source these applications.

Other countries’ approaches to contact tracing apps

Singapore’s use of their “trace together” app gives us a lens to peer longingly through, as their economy remains more robust and the lives of citizens appear to have a level of normality that for many of us is a distant memory.

It is an open-source app, shared under the GPL-3.0 open source license, and available on Github. Not only is this open-source license essential but the copyleft nature of the GPL is the most appropriate form of open sourcing an app of this nature, where it is essential that modifications remain under the same license.

Germany, on the other hand, started by creating a centralized database approach. This appeared advantageous to scientists, but unpalatable to civil rights groups and proved not to be a serious contender over time.

On 26 April, Germany confirmed a voluntary app with a decentralized approach. There will be a voluntary transfer of data to the Robert Koch Institute, but it is unclear if the app will be open source at this stage.

On 20 April, the Netherlands’ Secretary of State for the Interior, Raymond Knops wrote to the Parliament, “My appeal to public services is to release the source code unless they have good reasons not to. A public service that uses open-source software can also be expected to actively share with society software that it develops itself.”

Their guidance recommends using an open-source license and points to the European Union Public Licence as one option. This points to the European Commission’s Digital Strategy, where “Open source solutions will be preferred when equivalent in functionalities, total cost, and cybersecurity.”


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