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Coronavirus contact tracing app moves closer to launch

The app will alert users to possible exposure to Covid-19 and will be available from 31 August.

Kännykkää katsotaan sillmälasien kanssa.
The app will initially be available in Finnish and Swedish, with an English version to come later. Image: Mårten Lampén / Yle

A new mobile phone app will let users know if they have been in contact with people diagnosed with Covid-19. The app was developed by a technology firm in conjunction with the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, THL and will be available for download from Google and Apple app stores from 31 August.

A temporary amendment to the Infectious Disease Act will also take effect from 31 August, making it possible for the app to be used in Finland. It will initially be available in Finnish and Swedish, and an English version will be rolled out soon afterwards. Other language versions will be considered in the future, the THL said.

"Afterwards we will have to monitor the situation to see whether other languages are needed," THL information management director Aleksi Yrttiaho said.

The app will store anonymous data about encounters with infected persons in users’ phones rather than in a large central database, as part of a decentralisation principle designed to protect users’ privacy.

Swapping codes with Bluetooth signals

The aim of the app is to help trace people exposed to novel coronavirus. It works by using a bluetooth signal to send anonymous tracking codes to nearby phones. When two phones using the app are close enough to each other, they will save the other’s code.

If an app user falls ill, they can send their code to a background system managed by Kela. Other phones with the app will compare the codes sent to the Kela system with the codes received from phones they have recently encountered.

If they find a match, the app will notify users of possible exposure to the disease and will also provide instructions on what to do next. For example, users may be provided with a link to the Omaolo health check service or a phone number to a healthcare facility.

Health officials in Finland have said that exposure could result from spending more than 15 minutes in the company of an infected person.

Personal and data privacy crucial

Data privacy is key to ensuring that people will download and use the app. Health and wellbeing division director Risto Kaikkonen of tech firm Solita, which developed the app, said that the biggest challenge in technical implementation was ensuring that people would feel confident using it and would also find it easy to use.

"We have to feel confident [enough] to download the app in order to get enough benefit from this app. That’s surprisingly important in this project," he said.

The codes generated by the phone are randomly-generated and they cannot be used to identify phone users. They will automatically be removed from the user’s phone after three weeks.

"The code cannot in any way be used to track the individual or where they have been. Not even the THL or the app developer will have this information," Kaikkonen noted.

The app will not send data to any officials without the user’s permission. This means that if a user is informed that they were exposed to infection, that information will not be automatically shared with anyone else. The app will not disclose when or where the possible exposure happened -- let alone who might be the possible source of infection.

Similar apps in use in other countries

According to the THL’s Yrttiaho, similar apps in use in Europe support the assumption that people will likely use apps that protect their personal data.

"In Europe it very much seems to be the case that these decentralised systems are the ones that people have agreed to use," he said.

For example, similar apps are in use in Switzerland, Poland, Italy and Latvia.

The app will not provide a coronavirus diagnosis or recommend quarantine -- those functions are still the job of healthcare professionals.

According to the developers and THL, it only aims to lower the threshold for people who have been exposed to the virus to seek medical help.

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