Big brother knows and still Icelanders are happy

Almost 40% of Icelanders have downloaded a tracing app launched by the health inspectorate to fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 136,000 smart-phone owners have downloaded the app in Iceland which has a population of 360,000.

This amounts to roughly 25 million British or French, 32 million Germans or 125 million Americans downloading an app that could possibly permit authorities to trace all physical movements of at least one member of each family.

“We are continuing to urge people to download the app since we are convinced that the tracing of infections is a key to success,“ Alma Möller Iceland´s Director of Health told a press conference.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), case finding and contact tracing are among the fundamental elements of the response to COVID-19. “Countries that continue finding and testing cases and tracing their contacts not only protect their own people, they can also affect what happens in other countries and globally,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a Press Conference.

The app helps to analyse the user’s travel and trace movements in relation to those of other people when cases of infection or suspected infection arise.

If the owner of a phone shows symptoms of COVID-19 authorities asks if s/he is willing to provide access to the GPS-data. With the owner’s permission their movements can be traced.

“In practice we use this to refresh people´s memories,” Police Superintendent Ævar Pálmi Pálmason, told UNRIC in an interview.

“In some cases people have told us they travelled from one end of the country to the other on a Saturday when the app tells us they travelled on a Friday.” This of course radically changes the tracing effort.

Infected persons are interviewed about their contacts with others. “Let´s say that someone has bought a take-away coffee. We will then contact the café, and try to find out if the 2 metre distance has been respected, if there has been touching etc. and in some cases people have to be put into quarantine,” Pálmason says.

But how have authorities managed to convince such a large percentage of the population to download an app?

Photo of Reykjavik street Iceland, © UNRIC Photo


96% trust

The answer is simple: trust and transparence.

Iceland came on top with 96% in a recent international survey on trust in the authorities’ actions in fighting COVID-19. Most commentators agree that  a key to this is the Government decision to hand-over all communications to a triumvirate of senior health and civil defence officials.

The tracing app was the initiative of a group of private sector software programming companies which was donated pro-bono to health authorities.

Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, Member of Parliament for the Pirate party, a software programmer by training and a critic of “big data” said he was initially very sceptical of the initiative.

“After some back-and-forth with the health inspectorate I was provided with the coding, and I was convinced that the necessary measures have been taken so that authorities can only access information with the permission of each individual,” Gunnarsson told UNRIC.

Icelanders are among the world´s most enthusiastic users of social-media and the internet in general. “Most people already have such a tracing app on their smart-phones,“ quipped Matthías Kristiansen, a teacher. “It´s called Facebook.”

“This app is not going to gather any information about you that Facebook and Google don’t already  possess,” agreed journalist Hjördís Árnadóttir.


Apps to warn of proximity to the infected

South-Korea and Singapore have been pioneers in the use of tracing apps. There is, however, a fundamental difference since they allow individuals to see how close they are to where a confirmed COVID-19 patient has been. This is also the aim of the “StopCovid” app currently being designed by French authorities.

Norway introduced the app “Smitstopp” last week. The new app will not only help the Government track the spread of COVID-19, but will also notify the users of the app if they have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19.

“I personally think that as many as possible have to download the app, if we are to have our freedom and our everyday life restored to us,” said Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway. She also said that it is voluntary to download the app, but if many decide to use it, Norway may roll back measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 even sooner.

The introduction of the app in Norway has been more controversial than in Iceland. The difference is that Norwegian authorities collect the GPS of the movements from the smartphones and store them centrally for 30 days.

The widely read newspaper Verdens Gang (VG) supported the app “hesitatingly” in an editorial but said it preferred a solution where the information was kept on the users´s phone instead of a central data bank. “Such a solution would be safe-guard individual privacy better. The central collection of information is the most problematic aspect of the app of the public health institute.”

Google and Apple have announced their joint efforts in creating this kind of app. In Sweden it is anticipated that the app could be used to warn of the proximity of an infected person.

“We will surely, little by little, be in a position where tracing will become important to catch the last cases. Then such technology will be useful,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden´s chief epidemiologist, told a press conference.

Unfortunately, the tracing of the last cases of COVID-19 seem to be quite far-away.


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