Technology, Privacy, and User Opinions of COVID-19 Mobile Apps for Contact Tracing: Systematic Search and Content Analysis.


Elkhodr M(1), Mubin O(2), Iftikhar Z(3), Masood M(3), Alsinglawi B(2), Shahid S(3), Alnajjar F(4).
Author information:
(1)School of Engineering and Technology, Central Queensland University, Sydney, Australia.
(2)School of Computer, Data and Mathematical Sciences, Western Sydney University, Rydalmere, Australia.
(3)Department of Computer Science, Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan.
(4)Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, College of Information Technology, United Arab Emirates University, Alain, United Arab Emirates.


BACKGROUND: Many countries across the globe have released their own COVID-19 contact tracing apps. This has resulted in the proliferation of several apps that used a variety of technologies. With the absence of a standardized approach used by the authorities, policy makers, and developers, many of these apps were unique. Therefore, they varied by function and the underlying technology used for contact tracing and infection reporting. OBJECTIVE: The goal of this study was to analyze most of the COVID-19 contact tracing apps in use today. Beyond investigating the privacy features, design, and implications of these apps, this research examined the underlying technologies used in contact tracing apps. It also attempted to provide some insights into their level of penetration and to gauge their public reception. This research also investigated the data collection, reporting, retention, and destruction procedures used by each of the apps under review. METHODS: This research study evaluated 13 apps corresponding to 10 countries based on the underlying technology used. The inclusion criteria ensured that most COVID-19-declared epicenters (ie, countries) were included in the sample, such as Italy. The evaluated apps also included countries that did relatively well in controlling the outbreak of COVID-19, such as Singapore. Informational and unofficial contact tracing apps were excluded from this study. A total of 30,000 reviews corresponding to the 13 apps were scraped from app store webpages and analyzed. RESULTS: This study identified seven distinct technologies used by COVID-19 tracing apps and 13 distinct apps. The United States was reported to have released the most contact tracing apps, followed by Italy. Bluetooth was the most frequently used underlying technology, employed by seven apps, whereas three apps used GPS. The Norwegian, Singaporean, Georgian, and New Zealand apps were among those that collected the most personal information from users, whereas some apps, such as the Swiss app and the Italian (Immuni) app, did not collect any user information. The observed minimum amount of time implemented for most of the apps with regard to data destruction was 14 days, while the Georgian app retained records for 3 years. No significant battery drainage issue was reported for most of the apps. Interestingly, only about 2% of the reviewers expressed concerns about their privacy across all apps. The number and frequency of technical issues reported on the Apple App Store were significantly more than those reported on Google Play; the highest was with the New Zealand app, with 27% of the reviewers reporting technical difficulties (ie, 10% out of 27% scraped reviews reported that the app did not work). The Norwegian, Swiss, and US (PathCheck) apps had the least reported technical issues, sitting at just below 10%. In terms of usability, many apps, such as those from Singapore, Australia, and Switzerland, did not provide the users with an option to sign out from their apps. CONCLUSIONS: This article highlighted the fact that COVID-19 contact tracing apps are still facing many obstacles toward their widespread and public acceptance. The main challenges are related to the technical, usability, and privacy issues or to the requirements reported by some users.