Germany Battles COVID-19 With Data Volunteerism

Citizens want to fight the pandemic but also cherish their privacy. A careful approach to data-sharing can address both concerns.

Sharing health and location data has become increasingly important in the intensifying struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Yet an Oliver Wyman Forum survey finds that most Germans, as well as people in five other countries, are reluctant to share their information with anyone other than healthcare providers and public health authorities. Creative new approaches to data-sharing suggest ways to square that circle.

In our survey, a majority of Germans expressed a willingness to share the results of a COVID-19 test with an app that discloses the location of infected persons, provided its use was restricted to healthcare providers and authorities. But in comparison with the other five nations surveyed, Germany had the highest percentage of respondents who were not comfortable sharing their data with an app under any circumstances. As for willingness to share anonymized mobile location data, Germany ranked a little ahead of the US and the UK but behind the other three countries.

Such feelings have deep roots. Germany’s Basic Law, or constitution, defines human dignity as “inviolable.” The German constitution sets high bars for the state’s intrusion into its citizen’s privacy. Historically, Germany has strict privacy rules that have served as the basis for some of Europe’s strongest data protection rules. Data-sharing should be on a voluntary basis, and there are high obstacles for mandatory law to allow sharing of data.

German officials are now calling for such volunteerism to support a new data-driven solution. The Robert Koch Institute, a federal agency and research institution for disease prevention, is working with others in Germany and across Europe on smartphone apps to trace people with COVID-19 and inform those with whom they come into close contact. This approach, modeled on Singapore’s TraceTogether app, requires positive consent from those who participate.

Our survey suggests grounds for optimism on that front. Some 43 percent of German respondents said they would be willing to share their mobile location data with research institutions to trace contacts with infected persons. That was 15 percentage points higher than the next most-willing country, the UK.

The technology powering the app in Germany should also help address privacy concerns. It uses Bluetooth, which works over small distances to provide a clear picture of who has been close to whom. Normally, Bluetooth data can identify a phone’s owner, but the app converts that data into a unique identification number, enabling phones to anonymously exchange information. If someone becomes infected, their phone will use those identification numbers to send an alert via an encrypted server to all people with whom they’ve been in close proximity, warning they may be at risk of attracting the disease.

Countries like Singapore, China and South Korea have made mobile location tracking and apps key tools in their efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Communicating effectively will be essential if Germany is to follow in their footsteps. In our survey, 22 percent of Germans said they were extremely concerned for their personal health, and 29 percent were similarly concerned for the health of their family or community. Both responses were the lowest of the six nations covered in the poll.

Germany needs to act fast. The country’s death toll from the coronavirus is comparatively low, but it had nearly 90,000 confirmed cases as of April 3, the third-highest in Europe behind Italy and Spain.