Use of Participatory Apps in Contact Tracing – Options and Implications for Public Health, Privacy and Trust

William Buchanan, Muhammad Imran, Claudia Pagliari, Jill Pell, Sanna Rimpiläinen

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On December 31st, 2019, the World Health Organisation received a report from the Chinese government detailing a cluster of cases of ‘pneumonia of unknown origin’, later identified as novel coronavirus. The virus, now referred to as COVID-19, quickly spread and was officially declared a global pandemic on March 11th. COVID-19 has put health services under enormous strain globally. Turning to digital methods for collating data on cases, associated symptoms and the routes through which the virus may be spreading has been a common response. Human-powered contact tracing, although resource-intensive, is still considered to be the most effective way of tracking and helping to curtail the spread of infectious diseasesi. Intense efforts are underway to develop digital tools that can augment and automate some of these processes, such as the NHSX app or Singapore’s TraceTogether app, however, these are often beset with technical and privacy-related issues. This report reviews digital approaches that involve citizens as co-actors in efforts to support contact tracing, which may include elements of both location/proximity monitoring and symptom reporting, the latter representing a type of crowdsourced disease surveillance.ii This is approached from the perspectives of public health data needs, privacy-centred architectures, technologies and standards, and digital ethics. The aim is to inform an approach to digital contact tracing that is consistent with Scottish policy around secure, transparent, participatory and privacy-respectful data sharing for health and wellbeing. As such, some of the insights and recommendations are applicable to broader aspects of digital health in Scotland. The report collates expert answers to the following questions: • What are the desirable outcomes arising from the automation of symptom and contact tracing data collection at scale? (Prof Jill Pell, Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow); • How might the distributed system be architected to be secure and respectful of privacy from the outset? (Prof Bill Buchanan, OBE, School of Computing, University of Napier); • What communications standards and methods would best support the approach? (Prof Muhammad Imran, James Watt School of Engineering, University of Glasgow); • What are the ethical challenges and what steps should Scottish Government take to secure public trust? (Prof Claudia Pagliari, Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh)
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationGlasgow
PublisherUniversity of Strathclyde
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2020


  • contact tracing
  • mobile phone applications
  • COVID-19
  • coronavirus
  • public health
  • personal data
  • privacy
  • data security
  • digital health


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