Patrick O’Neill

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 has had just 12 new coronavirus cases in the last two weeks, a number that has remained steady over the last month. 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 it 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 quick uptake by the Italian residents who are able to download the app. Immuni does use technology developed by Google and Apple, a foundation in line with other European contact tracing apps. Immuni received full marks, including for minimization and transparency, in the coronavirus tracing tracker database.

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

The realization and reaction to these apps globally has led to profound skepticism about whether or not they will help fight the coronavirus in most countries. There are two sides to that question. Many wonder about both the efficacy and errors of this brand new technology. Perhaps just as important, there remains widespread public apprehension about digital medical surveillance, whether or not the apps will gain mainstream acceptance, and just how many downloads are needed to save lives and stop the pandemic.

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