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Europe is trying to contain the new wave of the COVID-19 epidemic with the help of IT technologies

Smartphone apps against COVID-19

Seven months after the start of the pandemic, the number of people infected with coronavirus in the world is again growing dangerously, according to the IP Agency. Governments in many European countries have warned their citizens to tighten isolation measures. The trends are alarming. The UK's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said that since the beginning of September this year, the number of cases in the Kingdom has doubled every seven days.


Life-saving apps for gadgets


In the past six months, mobile phone apps tracking new COVID-19 cases have been touted as a key part of Europe's plan to fight the coronavirus outbreak. In early September, the UK, Portugal and Finland introduced new smartphone products. Among them is Stayaway Covid, which uses Bluetooth technology.

Now the phone is able to warn the user who happens to be near an infected person about the danger. In this case, it is necessary to urgently take measures that break the chain of infection: go for testing, seek treatment, or self-isolate.




Initially, health officials hoped that at least 60% of the European population would use tracking programs, because they can be downloaded for free. But the actual number of users who have installed such apps ranges from a third of the population in Ireland, to 22% in Germany, and just 4% in France.

The programs were not widely distributed due to privacy concerns, technical difficulties, and lack of public interest. Some countries have already abandoned the development of their applications to track the spread of COVID-19, while others that have deployed them have found so few users that the technology has not had the expected effect.


Trust and social responsibility


Small countries in Northern Europe, where trust in the government is generally higher and where people are used to new technologies, have been most successful in getting people to voluntarily use virus tracking programs.

The app developed for Finland quickly became one of the most popular in Europe. It was launched in early September, and it was downloaded about one million times in the first day. The number of downloads continues to grow. According to the Finnish Institute of health and social security, the product is now installed in about a third of the country's 5,5 million residents.

Public confidence in the government helps allay concerns about privacy and government surveillance, first raised when several countries launched tracking apps three months earlier. Finnish users claim that they consider the installation of such programs on their phones a personal civil responsibility. At the same time, Finns also use simpler methods of protection against infection, such as wearing masks on public transport and maintaining a distance of 1,5 meters. According to reports on social networks, residents of the country tend to ignore privacy issues. Users note that their personal data has long been stored in Google and Facebook.

Most European tracking programs are developed on the interface of the Android (Google) and IOS (Apple) platforms, which use Bluetooth technology to anonymously register the proximity of any other smartphones with a similar application installed. At the same time, the phone location is not tracked, preserving the subscriber's privacy. People who test positive for COVID-19 upload anonymous codes to their mobile phones to alert others who have been in close contact with them.


You won't be forced to be nice


More Intrusive actions were less successful. For example, a French app that uses a centralized data storage system has been criticized by privacy activists. Only 4% of the country's citizens use it. Norwegian authorities were forced to shut down their app due to privacy concerns related to the use of phone location data. The Israeli program also uses data about the location of a mobile device, so its popularity was not as great as previously expected.

In China, the original epicenter of COVID-19, there is no app to track the spread of the virus, but there is a program that generates a color code indicating the state of a person's health, and this information is transmitted to the country's electronic monitoring service.

The UK government has switched to Google-Apple technology for its new "antivirus" app launched in Wales after abandoning the centralized version due to technical problems.

The US doesn't have a national APP for tracking COVID, but some States have launched their own. For example, Pennsylvania and Delaware decided to use NearForm technology.


Is the proposed technology really effective?


Is it possible to determine how these gadget apps have affected the fight against the pandemic?

"We may never know for sure", says Stephen Farrell, a computer scientist at Trinity College in Dublin who studies IT technology. This is because most applications do not require contact information from users, without which health authorities cannot track infected people and take effective measures. In the best case, you can determine the total number of warnings sent. In Ireland, for example, more than 300 people who tested positive for COVID-19 uploaded their codes, resulting in 900 warnings about close contacts out of more than 33000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection nationwide.