Norway pulls coronavirus contact tracing App due to privacy concerns

Now, Norway's health authority will delete all data gathered through its contact-tracing app, Smittestopp app, or Infection Stop, which was downloaded by more than 1.6 million users in the country of 5.3 million people over privacy concerns. The app had around 600,000 active users, which is just over 10 percent of the country's population.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many countries have launched contact tracing apps to help contain the spread of the virus. The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has spread across most of the world, now infecting more than 8.17 million people; hence, extensive contact tracing is a vital tool to prevent its vast spread.

One of the first in Europe

The software is one of the first national coronavirus contact-tracing apps to be launched in Europe. The suspension of the app comes after the country's data protection authority raised concerns that the app poses a disproportionate threat to user privacy since it tracks people's movements.

The data protection authority (DPA) also warned that the app invades the privacy of its users, even if it is needed in a nation trying to fight a pandemic. The Institute of Public Health (FHI) received a notice of decision on the temporary suspension and ban on processing personal data on the Smittestopp app. The FHI plans to stop uploading data on June 18, ahead of the June 23 deadline given by the DPA.

"We do not agree with the Data Protection Agency's assessment, but now we have to delete all data and pause work as a result of the notification. 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," Camilla Stoltenberg, the FHI Director, said.

"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," she added.

She added that they are hoping to find a solution to monitor the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, which has so far infected 8,660 people and killed 242 people.

No longer a proportionate intervention

The DPA believes that the app is no longer a proportionate intervention to monitor the spread of the coronavirus in the country. The watchdog intervened with the contact tracing app since there is a low contagion rate in the country and a low download rate for the app. This means that Smittestopp is no longer a needed intervention for the pandemic.

"The reason for the notification is the Data Inspectorate's assessment that Infectious Stop can no longer be regarded as a proportionate encroachment on users' basic privacy rights," Bjørn Erik Thon, director of the Data Inspectorate, said.

"Infestation is a very privacy-intensive measure, even in an exceptional situation where society is trying to fight a pandemic. We believe that the utility is not present the way it is today, and that is how the technical solution is designed and working now," Thon added.

Unlike other national coronavirus apps in Europe, which use Bluetooth signals to estimate user proximity to determine a person's exposure risk to SARS-CoV-2, the Smittestopp app tracks real-time GPS (global positioning system) location data, combined with Bluetooth technology.

The developers of the app decided that the best way to monitor the virus spread is to gather both Bluetooth and GPS location data and carry out contact-matches remotely on a centralized computer server.

The DPA, however, said that the health officials had not demonstrated that it was strictly needed to collect location data. Further, it said that the users of the app cannot choose to grant permission only for coronavirus contacts tracing. The users must also agree that personal information will be used for research purposes, which contradicts the EU data protection principle of purpose limitation.

"The Privacy Council has concluded that it is unnecessary to use location data in the infection tracking and recommends using only Bluetooth. We believe that FHI has not demonstrated that it is strictly necessary to use location data for infection detection and is meeting a new assessment by FHI on this," Thon explained.

Meanwhile, the FHI urged the public to keep the app on their phones in case the ban will be lifted in the future.

"I want to thank everyone who has downloaded the app and sent data to FHI. We hope they will keep the app in readiness on their phones. This means that we can quickly reactivate the app if we find a solution that the Data Protection Agency is satisfied with," Stoltenberg said.

Journal references:
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.

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