How Israel's COVID contact tracing app rollout went wildly astray

Israel's innovative COVID-19 contact tracing mobile app HamaGen got off to a promising start, with much of the country downloading it, but then the public lost faith. Here's what happened.

The late March pitch for HaMagen, or "the shield," the Israeli health ministry's coronavirus contact tracing app, was short and to the point.  "The app that protects you and updates you in real-time in case you are exposed to corona," declared a 15-second YouTube advertisement.

As first-wave case numbers surged and Israel entered its first nationwide lockdown, the buzz around the government's digital campaign against the pandemic was upbeat.

Privacy experts tested it and endorsed it. Coders volunteered tweaks to the open source code on GitHub. In the first few weeks after it became available, more than one million users downloaded HaMagen onto their smartphones. Newspapers crowned the app a success and reported that countries were looking into adapting it.

 A half year later, with Israel not yet fully reopened after a second lockdown that took effect in September, HaMagen seems to have been discarded both by the government and the public — even after a widely touted launch in late July of a second version, "HaMagen 2."

While HaMagen has collected more than 2.5 million downloads in a country of 9 million, the installed base of people actually using the app has declined slightly since late March, according to government figures. And even though more than 350,000 users downloaded the upgrade of HaMagen, only about 22,000 kept the app on their phones.

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