On June 1st, the Italian government released Immuni (meaning “immune”), the national contact-tracing application developed to track and halt the spread of the new coronavirus. Although the app can already be downloaded on citizens’ smartphones, before becoming fully operational it will through a testing phase which began on June 8 in four Italian Regions (Abruzzo, Liguria, Marche, and Puglia).
On June 2, during an interview with the national newscast Tg1, the Italian minister for Innovation and Digitalization Paola Pisano said (minute 1:05) that, among major European countries, Italy was «the first one» to adopt such a technology.
With the help of several SOMA partners, Pagella Politica fact-checked Pisano’s claim and found it to be slightly inaccurate.
How does the Immuni app work?
The Italian application for contact tracing Immuni was developed by Bending Spoons – a Milan-based software development company that offered the code to the government for free – and it is is based on Google and Apple’s “Exposure Notification system”, a platform jointly made available by the two tech companies to national governments and health authorities during the pandemic. The Italian national and Regional governments, and the public companies Sogei and PagoPa also took part in the development of Immuni.
When users download and activate Immuni, the Bluetooth technology of their smartphones will start tracing the devices around them (particularly those who stay at a maximum distance of 2 meters for at least 15 minutes) that have turned on the same app. Immuni stores an alphanumeric code for each contact and, whenever a user tests positive for the new coronavirus, the system sends out a notification to all the smartphones they came in contact with, warning them about the risks and inviting them to visit their GP.
Following some criticism on the issues, the Italian government specified that the use of Immuni is entirely voluntary and that it fully respects Italian and European privacy policies.
The situation in Europe
We collaborated with several SOMA partners to investigate the situation linked with contact-tracing applications in Europe, and we found that several member States made similar technologies available to their citizens before Italy.
Our colleagues from the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage noted that the app Stopp Corona is already active in the Austria, where it was released by the Red Cross on March 25. Stopp Corona works similarly to the Italian Immuni, but while the latter is never allowed to access users’ sensitive data, Stopp Corona will be able to store personal phone numbers of infected users for up to 30 days.
Among the biggest European countries, after an initial testing phase France launched the app StopCovid on June 2: a day after the official release of the Italian Immuni which, as noted, is not fully operative yet and still has to go through a testing phase. StopCovid, instead, is working nationwide and French citizens can already use all of its features. The application uses the Bluetooth technology to track other devices that stayed at less than 1 meter from us for at least 15 minutes, and then sends out notifications in case of potentially risky interactions.
Some countries have also expressed concerns about the development of contact-tracing applications. SOMA member Maison Moderne – an independent business media outlet based in Luxembourg – explained us that Luxembourg is «skeptical about their use [of contact-tracing apps] for data privacy reasons, but also because the Prime Minister doubts we can get 60% of people to use them». Even though, in facts, all the apps we have mentioned so far are based on voluntary use, researchers agree that the most people activate them, the most useful they will be. «Luxembourg currently does manual contact tracing, but it is drafting a legal framework for any contact tracing app that wants to operate in the country in future», Maison Moderne added.
It’s also worth noting that several EU member States developed applications that can be linked with contact-tracing, even though they might have different goals or mechanisms.
Basque Country, for instance, developed an app aimed at halting the spread of the new coronavirus, as SOMA member VOSTEuskadi told us. Covid19.eus – as the app is called – was launched on March 28, and it allows users to register their symptoms and to know the state of health of their family members, friends, colleagues and so on. However, it doesn’t have an actual contact-tracing feature yet, since the monitoring is based on manual inputs.
Our partners from Stratpol – an independent Slovakian think-tank part of the SOMA network – mentioned the app eKarantena, which was downloadable on Google Play since May 24 and was then approved by the Apple store five days later. This software is not properly aimed at contact-tracing, but rather is focused on the enforcement of a 14-days mandatory self-quarantine period for all those who enter Slovakia from abroad. Previously, all individuals who entered the country had to spend quarantine into state-run facilities, while now citizens who use eKarantena will be able to stay at their preferred location.
On June 1st, Italy launched the contact-tracing application Immuni. The day after, the Italian Minister for Innovation and Digitalization Paola Pisano said (minute 1:05) that Italy was the «the first one among major European countries» to adopt such a technology.
In order to fact-check Pisano’s claim we collaborated with several SOMA partners who helped us to outline a Europe-wide scenario about contact-tracing applications, and we can now conclude that Pisano was slightly inaccurate.
On the one hand it is true that, up to June 1st, other big European countries like Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom hadn’t released a national contact-tracing application, even though they are all engaged in developing or testing one.
On the other hand, France released StopCovid a day after Immuni, but while the former can already be used fully and nationwide, the Italian app still needs to go through a testing phase. Therefore, Italy ranks second among the major European countries for what concerns the activation of a national contact-tracing app.
To conclude, it’s also worth noting that if we broaden the scope to include all EU member States, several countries activated a contact-tracing application before Italy (such as Austria, Norway, Czech Republic, and Poland) while others developed similar systems aimed at tracking citizen’s health conditions (an example here is the app Covid19.eus in the Basque Country) or enforcing mandatory quarantine (such as eKarantena in Slovakia).