Italy Releases Controversial Covid-19 Contact-Tracing App

Italy has released its Immuni coronavirus contact-tracing application, amidst ongoing concern about the privacy implications of the app and others like it.

Immuni has been published on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, with the source code published on GitHub.

The app is being tested in Liguria, Puglia, Marche and Abruzzo ahead of a country-wide rollout next week or the week after, deputy minister of health Pierpaolo Sileri said.

He said the app formed part of a broader process of tracing the recent contacts of Covid-19-positive patients, adding that the role of a doctor in the process was “essential”, according to reports in local media.

Image credit: Bending Spoons

Privacy

Immuni, which was produced for the Italian government by Milan tech start-up Bending Spoons, initially used a “centralised” approach along the lines of the apps being deployed in the UK and France.

But this was changed to a “decentralised” model in late April following an outcry by high-profile scholars, privacy experts and lawyers.

The software doesn’t collect personal data, such as age, address, email or phone number, and uses anonymous tags to record other users the device has been in close contact with.

It uses Bluetooth Low Energy signals to sense other devices running compatible apps under Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification framework, and doesn’t use GPS data.

“Immuni does not share data with any other site or app,” Italy’s Ministry of Innovation said on its website.

“The data is not sold to anyone or used for any commercial purpose, including advertising. The project is not for profit, but was created solely to help cope with the Covid-19 epidemic.”

Image credit: Bending Spoons

Data transfer

The app does share epidemiological and operational information with centralised servers, but this information is only personalised for the user’s province of domicile.

The actual contact-matching process, which determines whether the user has been in contact with someone later diagnosed as positive, takes place on the device and not on a central server, as is the case with the NHS’ app.

The data is encrypted and is to be stored on servers located in Italy and managed by a company controlled by the Italian government.

In addition, the information is to be deleted when it is no longer needed, and by 31 December at the latest.

Italy is only the second European country to roll out an app based on Apple and Google’s framework, after Latvia.

Lockdown

Switzerland and Ireland are testing their apps and plan to release them this week.

In a survey by EMG Acqua on 26 May, only 44 percent of Italians said they would probably or certainly install Immuni, with 24 percent saying they would definitely not install it.

But some governments have said they believe contact tracing apps would prove helpful even if only 10 to 20 percent of the population use them.

Health authorities are looking to use contact-tracing programmes, both human and technological, to help control coronavirus infections as countries begin to ease their lockdowns.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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