Privacy Concerns Lead To Deletion Of All Data Collected By Norway's Contact Tracing App
from the not-enough-infections-is-a-nice-problem-to-have dept
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak — a few months ago, in other words — there was a flurry of activity around contact tracing apps. Desperate to be seen to be doing something — anything — governments around the world rushed to announced their own digital solutions to tracing people who have been in the proximity of infected individuals. There are now over 40 in various stages of development. After the initial excitement, it’s striking how quiet things have gone on the contact tracing front, as projects struggle to turn politicians’ promises into useful programs. Some of the apps are beginning to emerge now, and we’re likely to hear more about them over the next few weeks and months. For example, there’s been an interesting development in Norway, one of the first to release its smartphone app, Smittestopp (“infection stop”), back in April. As the Guardian reports:
On Friday, the [Norwegian] data agency Datatilsynet issued a warning that it would stop the Norwegian Institute of Public Health from handling data collected via Smittestopp.
Datatilsynet said the restricted spread of coronavirus in Norway, as well as the app’s limited effectiveness due to the small number of people using it, meant the invasion of privacy resulting from its use was disproportionate.
There are two important points there. One is about the balance between tackling COVID-19, and protecting privacy. In this case, the Norwegian data protection authority (NDPA) believes that the benefit is so small that the harm to privacy is unjustified. The other is that when the infection rate is low, as is the case in Norway, which has reported fewer than 250 deaths from coronavirus so far, people may not see much point in using it. Professor Camilla Stoltenberg, Director-General at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, is unhappy with Datatilsynet’s move:
We do not agree with the NDPA’s evaluation, but now we will delete all data and put work on hold following the notification. This will weaken an important part of our preparedness for increased transmission because we are losing time in developing and testing the app. Meanwhile, we have a reduced ability to combat ongoing transmission. The pandemic is not over. There is no immunity in the population, no vaccine, and no effective treatment. Without the Smittestopp app, we will be less equipped to prevent new local or national outbreaks
It’s worth noting that Stoltenberg admits that “the work involved in getting the app to work optimally has taken longer than planned, partly because there are few people who are infected”. As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to fall in some countries, those developing contact tracing apps there may encounter similar problems.