Finland’s new coronavirus tracing app aims to balance privacy concerns

The app will likely be ready at the end of August, with voluntary downloads beginning at the start of September.

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Graphic showing coronavirus tracking app / Credit: iStock

A contact tracing app which is being rolled out in Finland at the beginning of September  aims to balance privacy concerns with usefulness, after a number of countries ran into tech problems with their own software efforts.

Officials are keen to point out that a contact tracing app is not a magic bullet against a second wave of coronavirus, but that it should be viewed as one weapon in the arsenal of public health authorities against the virus.

The new app will allow local healthcare to anonymously alert other app users who may have come into proximity for a certain amount of time with a patient who tests positive for Covid-19, although it’s the responsibility of the positive patient themselves to let the app know they tested positive, before it can start to alert other people.

A pilot version of the app was trialed at Vaasa Central Hospital in May, funded by Sitra, and the full version has been in the pipeline since then. It has been reported the test app had integration problems with Apple and Google software.

“In many cases, although everything is working in a PowerPoint presentation, so you need to really test it and that was our aim, a quick test, make some experiments with the prototype so they can choose the right direction” explains Antti Kivilä from Sitra.

The Finnish app doesn’t have an official name yet – the obvious coronavirus-related app names were already taken, according to ministry officials – and it doesn’t need to have everyone in the country downloading it to be effective.

“Of course the coronavirus is affecting mostly in the Helsinki area so it’s important for people there who are moving around to have it. In a lot of areas of Finland there is no coronavirus at all, so it is not needed in those places as much” Kivilä adds.

There’s an estimate that if just 10% of everyone in Finland downloads the app and lets it run in the background of their smartphone, it would provide a wide coverage area.

Smartphone with coronavirus graphic / Credit: iStock

So how does the app work? 

At the Ministry of Health in Helsinki, Teemupekka Virtanen is one of the technical specialists working with developers on the app specifications.

He explains that the app monitors other people nearby who also have the app, and keeps an anonymous record going back for three weeks, about who each person was in contact with and for how long – the resulting information spreads out like a spider’s web.

That precise measurement of time and distance, and the risk it would pose for contracting coronavirus, has not yet been finalised.

“It’s still under research but currently you would have to be closer than two meters, for more than 15 minutes” before you would get an alert that you’ve been in close contact with someone who has a positive coronavirus diagnosis, explains Virtanen.

“When we make the app we do it in such a way to preserve privacy, even if it means it’s not as efficient for tracking the virus as it could be. The main point is helping people to take care of themselves, so they know as early as possible that they may spread the virus, and so they can take precautions” he tells News Now Finland.

App users would likely get an in-app message, or an SMS, to let them know they could have been exposed to coronavirus infection, and offer them options for getting a test or finding out more information.

File picture of tech, AI or computers / Credit: iStock

App problems in other countries

Finland’s contact tracing app comes after a testing phase and months of development, with a particular emphasis on the privacy side of things.

In other countries a rush to get their own app on the market didn’t prove so effective.

Authorities in Norway suspended their Smittestopp app in June after the Data Protection Agency said it was a threat to user privacy in part because it was uploading and saving locations. Although the app had been downloaded 1.6 million times since it launched in April, with 600,000 active users, all the data had to be deleted.

Unlike the Finnish app which uses Bluetooth to chart proximity, the Norwegian version also gathered GPS data, and Norway is now considering adopting an app design backed by Apple and Google instead.

Meanwhile Amnesty International cited Norway’s contact tracing app, along with similar aps in Kuwait and Bahrain, for having “highly invasive surveillance tools which go far beyond what is justified in efforts to tackle Covid-19.”

Germany’s app, released in June, came after delays over data privacy as well and experts there say they need 60% of the country to download and use it before it becomes an effective tool – a far higher estimate than from Finnish experts.

And in the UK a contact tracing app won’t now be ready until winter, with a health minister saying it was not a priority for the government at this time.

Australia’s app hit problems when it rolled out at the end of April, as iPhones couldn’t be detected when the device was locked; while Singapore has decided to build 300,000 wearable devices separate from phones, to help with their contact tracing system.

Making the app user friendly

As part of the design process for the free contact tracing app, which has been approved by a vote in Parliament in June, technicians wanted to make it as simple as possible.

It will be offered at least in Finnish and Swedish, and likely English and Sámi as well says Teemupekka Virtanen from the Ministry of Health.

It would be entirely voluntary to download the app  and at each stage a user would have to opt-in, for example to give the app permission to send their positive Covid-19 diagnosis to the network of other app users.