The German Corona-App: Expectations, Debates and Results

Illustration: Moran Barak

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The German Corona warning app is a success story. This paper tries – within the confines of its scope – to reflect on the complex debate which lasted more than three months up to its launch. This debate began already during the development of the app and even now, it remains unclear whether the benefits justify the costs. Although some commentators do not view the German Corona warning app as successful, this paper will present the app and especially the debate surrounding it as a success story, based on three aspects.

Active Democracy

Tracking or Tracing? Should we use the decentralized model with better data protection as backend for the app, or the centralized model, which would allow for conclusions to be drawn by epidemiologists? Should we choose complete transparency by open-source development and public participation or a closed-shop development? Should we have a legal basis for an app – yes or no? All these questions were thoroughly discussed by representatives from civil society, science, business and the federal government. There were frictions, misunderstandings and concessions.

The development of the German Corona app took time, and yet we found that precisely due to the pluralistic, intense debate that accompanied it, we were able to develop one of the world’s best Corona tracing apps in a relatively short time span. One should not forget that technological development takes time and cannot be accomplished overnight. The fact that the various stages – design, development, testing – were completed so fast and with a good result, without compromising on the societal discussions on how to achieve it, is far too little appreciated in Germany. And even if some do not view the app as effective, the contribution of the debate around it should be recognized.

Data Protection and Innovation: Compatible Priorities

“Data protection prevents innovation” is a common claim, invoked particularly when emphasizing the importance of innovative, data-driven ideas. However, data protection, insofar as it may limit data, is not an impediment to innovation, because when it comes to data, “more” is not necessarily “better.” The same applies to ideas based on the use of data. Yet even in Germany, a country known all over the world for its position favoring data protection, one hears that the prioritization of data protection has made any innovation impossible.

The German Corona warning app proves that this is not true. Furthermore, data protection is not important only in the context of advancing digitalization with “European values” in mind (reflected in civil and human rights like the right to privacy); in times of surveillance capitalism it gains ever greater significance. This applies for all countries worldwide. The European Union should not just be a role model in this respect but should also create (more) standards. When new developments ignore the European values, which are also reflected in data protection, they may be new, but they cannot be considered innovative.

Technology Alone Does Not Solve Problems

A notion that is still in its infancy but will hopefully keep evolving is the acknowledgement that digitalization and technology, their contributions notwithstanding, can only be instruments for achieving solutions and not solutions in and of themselves. More technology, more data, more artificial intelligence – none of these can protectus from problems; and in the worst case they will create new problems or aggravate existing ones. This is not “tech pessimism” – quite the contrary. The Coronavirus pandemic shows us (I hope) clearly how we can be realists who use technology for making our lives better, and also distinguish between when it is our personal behavior alone that determines if we will be able to solve problems. The belief that technology and digitalization resemble “magic,” so-called “techsolutionism”, will hopefully lose currency as a consequence of the pandemic. I urgently warn against yielding to the idea of collecting masses of data for the sake of “trying something,” considering that the amount and intensity of surveillance by a large number of players are increasing worldwide.


The Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) serves as a platform for exchange of ideas, knowledge and research among policy experts, researchers, and scholars. The opinions expressed in the publications on the IPPI website are solely that of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPPI.

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Policy Paper - The German Corona-App: Expectations, Debates and Results

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