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Norway halts coronavirus app over privacy concerns

"The pandemic is not over," Norwegian authorities said.
"The pandemic is not over," Norwegian authorities said.Photo by Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash

The news: Norway is halting its coronavirus contact tracing app, Smittestopp, after criticism from the Norwegian Data Protection Authority, which said that the country’s low rate of infections meant that the app’s privacy invasions were no longer justified. As a result, the app will cease collecting new data, all data collected so far is being deleted, and work on it is effectively paused indefinitely.

The background: Norway’s infection rate is steady and among the lowest in Europe. However, officials at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) disagreed with the decision, according to local reports.

“With this, we weaken an important part of our preparedness for increased spread of infection, because we lose time in developing and testing the app,” NIPH director Camilla Stoltenberg said in a statement on Monday. “At the same time, we have a reduced ability to fight the spread of infection that is ongoing. The pandemic is not over. We have no immunity in the population, no vaccine, and no effective treatment. Without the Smittestopp app, we will be less equipped to prevent new outbreaks that may occur locally or nationally.”

The context: New contact tracing apps are seeing mixed success as the virus itself continues to ebb and flow around the world. Norway opted against using privacy-focused technology developed by Google and Apple, and its app failed on marks of data minimization and transparency in MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker.

However, the situation is not the same all across Europe. Italy was the first country in on the continent to be badly hit, and Immuni, the contact tracing app backed by the government in Rome, was released recently to relatively positive reviews and quickly adopted by the Italian residents who are able to download it. Immuni does use the technology developed by Google and Apple. It received full marks on all criteria, including minimization and transparency, in the tracker database.

The United Kingdom has had its own struggles, choosing to build its own centralized technology instead of using the Silicon Valley system. The government’s contact tracing app is expected to finally be launched nationwide by June or July, according to the BBC. A slow and often rocky development process has left many confused and critical of the final product.

The reaction to these apps globally has led to profound skepticism about whether they will help fight the coronavirus in most countries. There are two sides to that question. Many wonder about the efficacy and accuracy of this brand-new technology. Perhaps just as important is the widespread public apprehension about digital medical surveillance, as well as uncertainty about whether the apps will gain mainstream acceptance and just how widespread adoption needs to be to save lives and stop the pandemic.

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