April 17, 2020 / 7:35 AM / a month ago

Italy tests contact-tracing app to speed lockdown exit

MILAN (Reuters) - Italy plans to use a smartphone app developed by tech start-up Bending Spoons to track people who test positive for the new coronavirus as part of efforts to lift its nationwide lockdown.

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective mask uses her mobile phone, as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread in Turin, Italy, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca/File Photo

The original epicentre of the virus outbreak in Europe, Italy has the world’s highest coronavirus death toll with more than 22,000 fatalities, second only to the United States.

Though the government last week extended the national lockdown until May 3, it is looking at ways of loosening the draconian restrictions imposed more than a month ago to curb the epidemic.

“We are working to test a contact-tracing app in some Italian regions,” Domenico Arcuri, the government’s special commissioner for the coronavirus emergency, told state broadcaster RAI late on Thursday.

Smartphone apps and other technology have been widely used in Asian countries such as Singapore and South Korea to help rein in contagion, but there have been deep misgivings in Europe over the potential for data abuse and privacy violations.

Arcuri said the aim is to make the app available to the entire country after the regional testing.

“It will be a pillar of our strategy to deal with the post-emergency phase,” Arcuri said.

Italy’s Innovation Ministry launched a tender last month for app developers volunteering their services. It received hundreds of proposals, from which a special committee selected the Bending Spoons product, a decree from the special commissioner showed.

VIRUS ALERTS

Milan-based Bending Spoons, which develops apps ranging from fitness to video-editing tools, is part of the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative.

PEPP-PT is promoting a European platform to allow national contact-tracing apps ‘talk’ to each other across borders.

The Bending Spoons application, initially named Immuni, uses Bluetooth technology to record when users are in close proximity with each other, people with knowledge of the matter said.

If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the app could send an alert to users who have been in contact with the infected individual, recommending actions such as self-quarantine and virus testing while preserving anonymity.

Advocates of Bluetooth technology say this method is a more accurate and less intrusive way to log proximity and the length of contact than location-tracking based on networks or satellites, which have been used in some Asian countries.

Arcuri said the app will be used voluntarily, in line with recommendations by Italy’s data protection authority and European privacy rules.

“But we hope our citizens will adopt it massively, as their support is needed to make a contact-tracing system work,” he added.

Experts say the app would need to be downloaded by at least 60% of the population to help to achieve so-called digital herd immunity.

Reporting by Elvira Pollina; Editing by David Goodman

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