Contact tracing tech

What is contact tracing and how is technology being used to improve it?
What are corporates doing? And why is adoption of contact tracing apps so challenging?

This project was completed in 2020 and is no longer being updated.

Read the paper

Kai Riemer, Raffaele Ciriello, Sandra Peter & Daniel Schlagwein (2020) Digital contact-tracing adoption in the COVID-19 pandemic: IT governance for collective action at the societal level, European Journal of Information Systems, DOI: 10.1080/0960085X.2020.1819898

What is contact tracing?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for rapid, population-wide digital contact tracing.

Contact tracing is a public health practice to identify and notify those people who had contact with or visited the same locations as an infected person during their contagious period.

Manual contact tracing follows these steps:

  1. Obtain consent from the infected or suspected patient.
  2. Work with the patient to re-trace their whereabouts during the contagion period.
  3. List any contacts the patient interacted with.
  4. Visit places of potential contagion and notify exposed individuals and advise them what to do (e.g., get tested or self-isolate).

Manual contact tracing has certain shortcomings in fast-spreading viral outbreak. Recollection of patients might be poor, they might be unwilling to disclose information, tracing takes time and it is very labour intensive.

Digital contact tracing offers technology-supported solutions to alleviate some or all of the above shortcomings. Three different approaches exist, location-based tracing, centralised proximity tracing and decentralised proximity tracing.

Location tracing

Location tracing either uses a location-tracking app or is carried out top-down using a range of data and surveillance technologies to retrospectively retrace the movements and contacts of a newly diagnosed patient and identify those who frequented the same locations at the same time.

It might use a variety of digital data, such as GPS and cell phone locations, data from social media platforms, CCTV camera and facial recognition data, travel booking and transport data, and other data points. As a result, location tracing is considered highly privacy invasive. While successfully used in some countries it is considered intolerable or may even be illegal in many other societies, particularly Western ones.

Proximity tracing

Proximity tracing collects data while contacts between people take place, instead of tracing retrospectively,. It uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to establish contact between two users by measuring distance (using signal strength) and duration of a contact. It works as follows:

  1. The user installs the service (e.g., via app download or OS update) on their smartphone and activates Bluetooth. The phone is registered with an ID at a central infection tracking server.
  2. The service operates in the background and acts as a beacon and receiver. It sends out its own ID and collects the IDs of other users located within a certain radius and time span.
  3. When a user tests positive, he/she tells the app. The service then registers the infection with the contact tracing server.
  4. All users the patient came in contact with receive a notification as well as instructions what to do.

There are two versions of proximity tracing that come with different privacy implications.

Centralised proximity tracing

Users register their phone number with a central computer server, which then creates the anonymized IDs that devices exchange. Anonymity is thus preserved between devices but not vis-à-vis the central authority (such as government health agencies). The central server is in charge of decrypting keys and contacting devices of exposed users via their phone numbers. This centralisation allows authorities to know who is infected and who was exposed, which can feed into manual contact tracing efforts.

Decentralised proximity tracing

Users register with the central server anonymously rather than with their phone number. Individual phones carry out much of the tracing and notification. Instead of centralized registration of exposed users and push notifications to devices, each device pulls all known IDs of infected users from the server and compares these with the decentral, locally held list on the device, which means the server does not need to know the identity of any device, infected user or those exposed. While the most privacy-preserving solution, it does not allow authorities access to exposure data, thus disconnecting the solution from manual contact tracing.

The most widely used technology is Apple and Google’s decentralised Exposure Notification service that underpins apps in many countries. Implementation at the operating system level ensures seamless functioning of apps with a device’s Bluetooth. While centralised solutions, like the Australian COVIDSafe app, are favoured by some governments because they intersect with manual contact tracing, they suffer from certain restrictions in accessing Bluetooth while phones are not in use, limiting their efficacy

Manual Contract TracingCommon practice at prior pandemics, such as MERS, SARS1, or HIV.Well understood, effective, accepted, and institutionalised.Error-prone, time-intensive, labor-intensive, privacy- invasive, does not scale in rapid outbreaks.
Surveillance TracingSouth Korea’s “Virtuous Surveillance”.Effective, top-down, comprehensive, no population acceptance needed.Not suitable for individualistic societies, highly privacy invasive, risk of surveillance state.
Proximity Tracing (centralised)Singapore’s “TraceTogether”, Australia’s “COVIDSafe” Apps.Effective (if widely used), public sector controlled, integrates with manual tracing.Privacy concerns toward governments, no automatic rollout possible
Proximity Tracing (decentralised)Apple-Google’s Exposure Notification.Effective (if widely used), global, not privacy invasive, infrastructure already in place, direct OS access, automatic rollout possible.Private sector controlled, privacy concerns toward corporations, lack of public control and no integration with manual tracing.

Contact tracing apps

The following table provides a structured overview of the digital contact tracing solutions used by countries around the world. We are comparing these solutions according to their technical approaches (see above), and in more detail, their privacy implications:

  • Penetration / diffusion: percentage of the population using the app (at time of data collection)
  • Tech: Bluetooth proximity tracing, or location-based tracing – see above for detailed descriptions
  • Voluntary: Is the individual user free to adopt and resist adoption or is use mandated or centrally enforced?
  • Centralisation: centralised vs decentralised (see above), location-based tracing is always centralised

Note: where cells are marked as TBD, we are actively looking for this information. If you are able to help, please get in touch.

Contact tracing around the world

Contact tracing in the US

In the United States every state creates their own individual contact tracing solution. Those solutions are not included in the above table. As most US states are still developing their solutions, the following table presents very much a work in progress.

Source: Sydney Business Insights (last updated, 13 October 2020.

Corporate contact tracing

A range of commercial products and services have been launched to help businesses and public organisations to safely re-open their premises. The following table gives an overview of the range of approaches that are being implemented; it is not meant to be exhaustive. It becomes obvious that privacy is less of concern in on-premise tracing, compared with the implementation of public solutions by governments and health agencies.

#Type of tracingDescriptionExamples
1Check-in tracingKeeping a log of everyone who visits a location, such as an office or restaurant, allows notifying potentially exposed contacts, if someone in attendance tests positive.CovidPass: Simple QR code solution for small businesses
SwipedOn: Add-on to professional visitor management system
2Proximity tracingSolutions that establish contacts by way of proximity between devices.
2a) Smartphone AppCommercial smartphone apps that implement Bluetooth-based proximity tracing for on-premise use by an organisation’s employeesMobile Programming, SaferMe, PwC: bespoke smartphone apps for corporate clients
2b) Tokens and badgesBluetooth-based proximity-tracing implemented without smartphone app, using physical devices that collect the contact data and transmit it to a central server.Estimote: New product by IoT tracking start-up
3Location tracingSolutions that track employees’ whereabouts while on premise.
3a) Tokens and beaconsBeacons installed in the environment collect data from Bluetooth tokens (badges), thus mapping a user’s locations for contact tracing.LeashIT: New service by asset tracking company
Estimote: New product by IoT tracking start-up
3b) GPS and WiFiSmartphone apps that don’t use Bluetooth proximity tracing, but determine a user’s (approximate) location on premise using GPS and/or WiFi data.New Mexico State University: students developed an app for on campus use, tracking smartphone locations
4Surveillance tracingMost comprehensive (and intrusive) form of contact tracing. Combines a range of surveillance data, such as badge scan, wifi data, meeting bookings, work shift logs etc, to determine location and potential contacts.ServiceNow: Safe Workplace suite comes with integration of multiple data points.
5Integrated solutionsComprehensive systems combining a number of tracing methods, usually with integrated dashboards.Ramco: Comprehensive check-in, tracing and tracking add-ons to workforce management suite
Zyter: Integrated health facility management system for nursing homes and clinics, comes with check-in and other means of tracing

Challenges of contact tracing adoption

Pandemics such as COVID-19 present large-scale crises that require collective action at the societal level to be contained, including the use of digital technologies.

The following research paper discusses in detail the challenges of contact tracing adoption and proposes a framework for governments and health agencies to govern the roll-out and adoption of, in particular privacy-preserving Bluetooth-based proximity tracing.

Digital Contact Tracing Adoption in the COVID-19 Pandemic: IT Governance for Collective Action at the Societal Level
By Kai Riemer, Raffaele Ciriello, Sandra Peter, Daniel Schlagwein


The COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for rapid, population-wide digital contact tracing. One solution, Bluetooth-enabled digital proximity tracing using smartphones, promises to preserve individual privacy while helping to contain society-wide viral outbreaks. However, this digital solution works effectively only if adopted by the majority of the population. This poses a collective action problem: everyone would benefit from wide-spread proximity tracing, but the benefits for the individual are indirect and limited. To facilitate such collective action at the societal level, this paper conceptualizes the option space of IT governance actions for proximity tracing adoption along two dimensions: decision-making entities (who will govern the roll-out) and accountability enforcement (how strictly will adoption and use be enforced). Examining coherent governance approaches that arise from the framework, we show that there are no globally ideal approaches but only locally contextualized ones that depend on immediate health risk, prior experience with pandemics, societal values and national culture, role of government, trust in government and trust in technology in each society. The paper contributes specific propositions for governing digital contact tracing in the COVID-19 pandemic and general theoretical implications for IT governance for collective action at the societal level.

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This resource is part of a series of insights related to COVID-19 and its impact on business.