StopCovid app icon on mobile showing the mixed public opinions and technical issues on Italy’s and France’s first contact tracing apps

Italy and France Roll out Europe’s First Contact Tracing Apps to Mixed Public Opinion, Technical Issues

Italy and France are among the earliest of the European countries to roll out their contact tracing apps, highlighting a fragmented EU landscape that has yet to come up with a solid answer to its unique issue of cross-border movement.

Much of the debate centers around adoption of the controversial contact tracing API released by Apple and Google last month. Italy makes use of this API, while France’s contact tracing app does not.

Italy’s “Immuni” contact tracing app

The Immuni app has initially been rolled out to four of the hardest-hit regions of Italy, with plans to introduce it to the rest of the country in the coming weeks.

This app makes use of the Apple and Google joint contact tracing API, giving it instant compatibility and interoperability with most of the world’s mobile phones. However, the app will not necessarily work with older devices that are incapable of upgrading to a recent enough OS version. Android phones will require version 6.0 (Marshmallow) at minimum, while it appears that Apple phones require at least iOS 12 to ensure that the app works correctly. This means that some Apple and Android devices that are more than five or so years old may not be able to upgrade to an OS version that supports the contact tracing app.

Immuni relies on Bluetooth signals, as well as voluntary use and self-reporting. Medical authorities can update a national database when a patient is diagnosed with Covid-19, and anyone that comes within a short distance of that phone for an extended period of time will automatically be sent a warning to get tested and self-isolate. The Italian government has stated that personal data is not stored beyond this function and that participants will not be geolocated, terms that the tech giants were adamant about in developing their API. Contact logs must also be deleted no later than December 31 of this year.

Polling conducted by EMG Acqua in late May suggests that Italian citizen support for the contact tracing app is still below the 60%-80% threshold that public health experts estimate is necessary for it to be more useful than traditional contact tracing methods. Only 44% of respondents said they would either “certainly” or “probably” download it, while 24% said that they would definitely not be downloading it.

France’s “StopCovid” contact tracing app

Though the StopCovid app promoted by French public health authorities is available through the official Google and Apple app stores, it does not use their API. The app rolled out simultaneously with an easing of lockdown restrictions that allowed traffic at parks and beaches again and dine-in options at restaurants and cafes.

Like the Italian contact tracing app, the system is based around Bluetooth technology. However, this system passes information through centralized servers run by the French government. France was among the European countries that opposed the Google-Apple contact tracing API due to the belief that the utility was too limited if data could not be centrally processed and stored. The French government says that the app does not track or store location data, and deletes contact logs after 14 days.

This app also requires end-to-end voluntary participation to function. When someone is diagnosed with Covid-19, the medical professional generates a QR code for them that they can choose to enter into the app. If they do, an “ephemeral” ID will be generated and connected to all other app users that the patient has contacted in the past two weeks. The app creates a color-coded “risk score” for each user based on the amount of contact they have had with these known positive ephemeral IDs; when the score reaches a certain level, they are sent a warning to be tested and self-isolate.

The app ran into some significant launch issues. The early June debut saw only the Android version available initially, with no explanation on the first day as to why users could not download the app for iOS; during this period a number of Apple users mistakenly downloaded Catalonia’s “Stop Covid19 CAT” informational app instead. The correct iOS app has since become available.

An April opinion poll conducted by IFOP found that only about 46% of French citizens were likely to voluntarily use the app, with 53% indicating they were opposed to it.

International compatibility issues

The French app is not presently compatible with Italy’s app, and is unlikely that the EU’s hodgepodge of various contact tracing apps will end up being interoperable due to most of the independent efforts routing information through a central server controlled by the government.

Other nations that are going their own way with unique contact tracing apps include Switzerland, Great Britain and Germany. Switzerland was technically the first European country to launch an app, but is in an extended limited pilot period after which the country will take up legislation to govern its use going forward. Britain’s app is expected soon, but has been plagued by technical delays and still does not have a firm release date. Germany’s app will attempt to avoid centralized state servers by storing all data on local devices, but it is also unclear when it will be ready for the public.