More than 20 countries and regions in Europe have launched or planned smartphone apps that break the chain of coronavirus infections by tracking human encounters and issuing warnings (if one of them tests positive).
Most countries in the region concluded that using location data to track people’s activities would cause interference, so they chose to use Bluetooth short-range radios to monitor close contacts that could spread diseases.
What is the story so far?
After initial failed efforts, Apple and Alphabet’s Google (whose iOS and Android operating systems run 99% of the world’s smartphones) developed a standard to securely record contacts on devices.
Which countries have released applications?
In the European Union, Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Latvia and Poland have launched applications that use the Google-Apple standard. Outside the European Union, Switzerland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar have similar applications.
Another nine EU countries plan to design interoperable Google-Apple applications.
France and Hungary launched another type of application, which stores information on a central server. The resulting standard differences mean that it is difficult to make all applications run seamlessly across Europe.
How does the application work?
These applications usually display a “green” or safe status. If a user spends more than 15 minutes within two meters of another app holder, then the test result is positive and the result is uploaded, they will receive an exposure notification.
What will change next: German apps advise users to seek medical advice; Swiss people share a hotline; and in Ireland, users can choose to share their phone number and get a callback from the contact tracker.
It sounds complicated-will they do the job?
The design of Bluetooth-based applications represents a trade-off between practicality and privacy. For example, it is impossible to determine the exact time and location of a risk event only through the application.
The most privacy-conscious application prevents administrators from monitoring the number of exposure notifications passing through the system, which is a key way to measure whether the application is working as expected.
However, the Google-Apple framework does allow monitoring of exposure notifications. This feature is enabled in the Irish app, which also has additional programs like a symptom tracker, where users can voluntarily share information about their feelings, thereby helping health authorities map out the epidemic.
© Thomson Reuters 2020