“Solutionism”, a term popularised by Evgeny Morozov’s 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here, refers to the pervasive attitude that complex social problems can be resolved with ingenious technological solutions. No serious political or economic changes are necessary; no difficult trade-offs must be made between competing interests. We do not need to discuss how we define the problem in the first place, how that shapes our response, and to whose advantage. We just need better coding skills. 

As European countries begin tentatively relaxing their lockdowns, the concept of solutionism is helpful in making sense of government strategies and the surrounding media debate. In particular, a major focus of both has been the launch of contact tracing apps. These would track when their users are in close proximity, so that if one user tests positive for Covid-19, their contacts can be notified and directed to self-isolate and get a test themselves. Contact tracing by humans, who interview infected patients and track down their contacts, is a well-established public health strategy. The hope is that by automating and scaling it, we can quickly close down chains of transmission and stop the virus from spreading, even while we all get back to work and go about our lives as usual. 

As nice as that would be, it is not going to happen. The furore around contact tracing apps has less to do with the evidence that they are useful, which is thin at best, than with the profound attractiveness of the idea that some clever technical fix will free us from quarantine and let us resume normal life. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in national and international public health systems and, in some cases, alarming governmental incompetence. It is also exacerbating social and economic inequalities and highlighting the inherent unsustainability of the global economic system. These problems demand serious political engagement and substantial changes to how our societies are organised. Apps and other new technologies will not make them go away. 

Contact tracing: the conversation so far 

Contact tracing apps have been used in Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, all of which have contained Covid-19 much more successfully than most Western countries, even without strict lockdowns. Governments in Europe and elsewhere are now looking to them for guidance. Although contact tracing apps were just one part of these countries’ public health strategies, many other aspects of which European governments are not able or willing to emulate, they have emerged as a particular focus. Most European countries with major outbreaks are now working on their own apps (with the notable exception of Belgium, which is concentrating on more traditional public health approaches). 

The various European apps will all work in a broadly similar way, although there have been differences of opinion over the technical details and how well different approaches protect user privacy. The basis for contact tracing will be Bluetooth, which can record when users are in physical proximity without tracking their location. In April, Apple and Google released plans for an application programming interface (API), a set of programming specifications for contact tracing apps that will allow enhanced access to their operating systems, which are used by over 99% of smartphones. Access to the API comes with conditions: it will be available only to state institutions, will permit only decentralised apps (where anonymised contact records are stored only on phones, not on a central server), and will prohibit compulsory apps or the use of location data. In order to collect additional data which could be useful to public health authorities, some countries – notably France and the UK – have chosen to build centralised apps which do not use the API, even though this means sacrificing useful functionalities, such as being able to continue running while a phone is locked. 

In the endless stream of news and commentary about Covid-19, lockdowns, and exit strategies, contact tracing apps have been a prominent theme. A search for ‘contact tracing app’ on the New York Times website returns 25 articles; Die Zeit has 41 mentioning ‘Corona-App’, and Le Monde has 36 on the French government’s ‘StopCovid’ application. There has been intense debate on the merits of rival technical standards and the Apple-Google API. The German government’s decision in late April to switch its original plan for a centralised app to the decentralised Apple-Google standard received plenty of media attention; there has been much speculation recently that the UK government will do the same. 

Much of this debate has focused on the threat to privacy and the risk that – as after 9/11 – the crisis will be used to justify an increase in state surveillance capacities, which will ultimately become normalised and permanent. Despite the seriousness of these concerns, there is a danger of reducing the debate to a false trade-off between privacy and public health. The intense discussion around technical and privacy standards for contact tracing apps is distracting us from two more basic questions: should we be using them at all, and if not, why are we having this conversation?

Do contact tracing apps work?

Despite all the hype around contact tracing apps, there is little evidence for their effectiveness, as think tanks such as Brookings and the Ada Lovelace Institute have highlighted. Most of the excitement is based on their apparent success in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. A closer look at how coronavirus has been managed in these countries shows how misleading this is. 

First, all three countries relied on well-resourced public health systems which could provide widespread testing, large-scale human contact tracing operations, and support and facilities for people required to self-isolate. Apps were one small part of a broader strategy: there is no reason to believe that they would work in the absence of these other factors. Modellers in Sweden have found that contact tracing apps would make no real difference to the spread of Covid-19 unless combined with mass testing, which European countries are struggling with. In a recent blog post, the product lead on Singapore’s TraceTogether app emphasises how closely his team worked with human contact tracers, and does his best to cut through the automation hype: “If you ask me whether any Bluetooth contact tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, No”. 

Manual contact tracing is a labour-intensive process requiring human judgment and interpersonal skills. By interviewing patients, contact tracers gather information about the nature and context of interactions (such as whether they took place outside or in a ventilated area) which Bluetooth sensors cannot emulate. Indeed, apps would completely miss any interactions with people who have not downloaded them, or those who do not have a smartphone at all. Keep in mind that the people who are less likely to own smartphones – the old and the poor – are exactly those most vulnerable to Covid-19. Obtaining this information is just the start: contact tracers must then follow up with the contacts, sensitively inform them of the risk, and persuade them to voluntarily self-isolate. For people in difficult social or economic circumstances, this is a lot to ask and may require tailored support from public services. A smartphone notification is no substitute.

On top of that, these notifications would frequently be inaccurate. Critics have repeatedly highlighted major technical issues with using Bluetooth to track social contact. Bluetooth-based apps would not only miss many significant contacts, but would simultaneously produce a huge number of false positives (for example. people who were physically close, but on opposite sides of a wall). This is why South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore did not rely only on Bluetooth. As mentioned, the apps were deployed to support, not replace, manual contact tracing. They also used far more data than anything currently being considered in Europe, including GPS location data and credit card transactions. The extent to which they compromise privacy has caused some controversy in their home countries. 

Even with all these data and resources, Asian contact tracing apps have not been an unqualified success. Singapore’s TraceTogether was only downloaded by around 20% of its population, not enough to make a major difference to its testing and tracing strategy. The country is now facing a second wave of Covid-19 cases, primarily among marginalised migrant workers who live in crowded dormitories and appear to have been largely left out of initial public health efforts. This should be taken as another reminder that public health is deeply intertwined with other social and economic problems, which do not have easy technological fixes. 

Overall, European governments are cherry-picking one small aspect of a broader testing, tracing, and quarantine strategy that has been successful elsewhere – though by no means a panacea – and recreating it in a more limited fashion. They then expect it to have the same effect, even though there is no evidence that this would be the case and major technical issues have not been resolved. Harvard privacy expert Bruce Scheier put it bluntly: “My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value. I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful?” 

Why all the fuss over contact tracing?

If this is the case, one might wonder why contact tracing apps have been so prominent in government strategies and media discussions. Here, the concept of solutionism is illuminating. On an emotional level, the idea that a clever technology will let us resume normal life without case numbers shooting back up is extremely appealing. Facing a historically severe recession, our political leaders are desperate for a way to safely end lockdown and resume economic activity. But as Morozov’s work makes clear, solutionism is not just about our personal feelings. It is a politically useful tool, which allows those in power to offer superficial technical fixes as a substitute for social and economic change. Scheier may be right about the value of contact tracing apps as a public health tool, but they are highly valuable as a political narrative. 

Apps are shiny and modern, and make for good PR. Politicians like Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson would much rather we all talk about the smart new technology their governments have developed than about, for example, their attempts to brush over a shortage of masks by insisting that they are not useful anyway, or repeated failures to meet testing targets. As governments seek to relax lockdowns and get their economies up and running, launching an app is a way to reassure the public that they have spent the lockdown period doing something useful which will keep us all safe as we go back to work. It is no coincidence that France’s StopCovid app was officially launched on May 11, the day its national lockdown ended, even though this is just the trial stage and it would not be rolled out nationwide until some weeks later. Symbolically, apps are what will keep us safe in this new phase of the pandemic. 

Symbolically, apps are what will keep us safe in this new phase of the pandemic. 

This is also, of course, a highly convenient narrative for big tech companies. Apple and Google’s API release has been an excellent way to get some much-needed good press, show off how much they care about protecting user privacy, and gain leverage over governments which have been threatening them with inconvenient regulations. Brookings has suggested that the pandemic could be a turning point in the recent international trend towards stricter data and privacy laws. Even if the privacy standards of the contact tracing apps themselves cannot be faulted, they will reinforce the idea that handing ever more data to governments and big tech companies is the way to solve our problems.  

We are asking the wrong questions

It could be argued that this view of contact tracing apps is too pessimistic. Perhaps we should be open to anything that could help us safely end lockdown policies which cause huge social and economic damage, even if it only makes a small contribution. As a recent Wired article put it, “The system will be imperfect…[but] Bluetooth contact tracing serves as one more tool to detect and fight an invisible adversary. The world may need every tool it’s got.” But as privacy advocates have highlighted, mass surveillance technologies are not a harmless experiment. The media discourse around the apps is not harmless either. 

It is a truism that in the information economy, attention is a scarce resource. In the current flood of Covid-19 stories, that is more the case than ever. The extensive media coverage of every twist and turn in the development of Europe’s contact tracing apps is a convenient distraction from more important stories of government failure, of which there are many: the shocking racial and class disparities in the impact of Covid-19, for example, or the thousands of deaths caused by failures to take basic safety precautions in British and Italian care homes. We know what needs to be done to strengthen our public health infrastructure: apps may just serve as another excuse not to do it. 

We know what needs to be done to strengthen our public health infrastructure: apps may just serve as another excuse not to do it.

In a broader sense, this media discourse and the solutionist mindset it promotes undermine our ability to ask more important questions. The narrative that the pandemic has a technological solution, and that once we have refined it sufficiently we can emerge from lockdown and go back to our lives as they were before, is inaccurate and dangerous. If technology can free us from the pandemic, then we do not have to ask why the distribution of power and risk in our society left some people so much more vulnerable than others, or what we are going to do about the fundamentally unsustainable economic practices which increase the likelihood of future pandemics

As philosopher Daniele Lorenzini wrote recently, we need “to elaborate responses, instead of looking for solutions…to avoid short-term problem-solving strategies aiming at changing as little as possible of our current way of living.” Contact tracing apps are dangerous not only because they threaten our privacy, but because they reinforce precisely this conservative, short-termist outlook. The virus is not a bug that can be fixed. It was a predictable consequence of an ecologically unsustainable way of life, and is exacerbating entrenched social injustices which can’t be addressed without major political and economic change. The promise of a technologically-enabled return to normality is convenient for governments seeking to deflect attention from their own failures, and for those who profit from the economic status quo. For the rest of us, contact tracing apps are a dangerous distraction. 

This is our second in a series of reports looking at how governments worldwide have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.