Authorities halt anti-infection app

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Norway’s public health institute FHI had to reluctantly ask Norwegians on Monday to deactivate its app called Smittestopp, aimed at stopping the spread of the Corona virus. Higher state authorities had ruled that with Norway’s low infection rate, the app was too invasive in Norwegians’ private lives, while it also has had mixed reviews.

The Smittestopp app was introduced in mid-April to help stop the spread of the Corona virus. With infection rates now low, data protection authorities think the app’s invasiveness can no longer be justified. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The app’s temporary disabling comes after a warning from the Norwegian Data Protection Authority (Datatilsynet). It informed FHI that it was about to issue an order that would prevent officials at the public health institute from handling or using any of the personal information tied to the app.

“Smittestopp is an extremely invasive measure, also in an emergency when society is trying to battle a pandemic,” Bjørn Erik Thon, director of Datatilsynet, stated on the data protection authority’s own website Monday morning. “We don’t think its usefulness is valuable enough (to offset privacy considerations) in today’s situation.”

Smittestopp was introduced earlier this spring as a “digital solution” to track down and warn people about close contact with anyone testing positive to Covid-19. The app, the downloading of which has always been voluntary, could track the movements of those who’d downloaded the app to their mobile phones, and thus pair them with those of infected people they may, for example, have simply passed on a street or while standing in line at the grocery store.

The app spurred instant criticism, however, for both privacy reasons and because some didn’t think it functioned well enough to justify its installation on their phones. An estimated 600,000 people downloaded it, however, and they’re now being told to deactivate the app.

FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) announced Monday morning that it will trash all data collected by the Smittestopp app and temporarily stop gathering new data. Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, director of FHI, said on national radio Monday that she and her colleagues at FHI did not agree with the data protection authorities’ assessment or warning, but would comply with its conclusions.

“We don’t think (the app) is unduly invasive,” Stoltenberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on its morning news program. “We think this will weaken an important part of our preparedness when we delete data collected.”

Even though FHI “does not share” the data protection authority’s concerns, Stoltenberg added, all work tied to the app would be “put on pause” as a result of Datatilsynet’s warning. She considers that a setback, warning that FHI workers may “lose time for development and testing of the app.” She said the app had been downloaded 1.6 million times, and had nearly 600,000 users as of early June.

Thon of Datatilsynet stressed that it was FHI’s “own choice” to stop gathering information from the app immediately, even though they could have continued until the authorities’ deadline of June 23.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund