Analysis. Contact tracing apps that use the DP-3T algorithm are private. But experts wonder if they’re even useful, since they are only effective if at least 60% of the population voluntarily install them.

Contact tracing apps in Italy won’t work if no one downloads them

On Monday there were 92 dead and 300 new positive cases of COVID-19 throughout Italy. In Lombardy, where there were 34 deaths recorded; no official correction has arrived after the surprising (and somewhat suspicious) “zero deaths” on Sunday.

Most importantly, the low number of swabs carried out in Lombardy raises doubts: 5,641 tests were carried out Monday, revealing 148 new cases. In Veneto 7,470 were performed, only 11 of which were positive. With 2.6%, Lombardy has by far the highest ratio of new positives to tests performed: the national average is 0.8%. This means that in Lombardy, contact tracing operations, i.e. the search (and testing) of people at risk of infection, are proceeding slowly.

It is hoped—but no one is really convinced—that the “Immuni” app will speed this up. According to the intentions of the government, the app will record the contacts between people and will automatically alert those who have been close to an infected person. “Immuni” has been discussed for two months now, during which widespread doubts about the project have emerged. The ability to record the people we come into contact with has raised concerns about privacy risks.

Moreover, many experts have expressed doubts about its usefulness, since the app will be effective only if it is installed (on a voluntary basis) by at least 60% of the population. So far, in all countries where contact tracing has been performed using digital means, an app has only played a secondary role.

The source code of Immuni was published on Monday morning on the Github website, the main repository for the IT industry where the programmer community holds its debates and discussions. If we compare it to a car, an app’s source code represents what happens under the hood of the car while the driver is turning the wheel and pressing on the gas pedal. Only when reading the code is it possible to see how the app actually uses personal data. Computer programs that make their code public are called open source.

From the point of view of privacy, the danger seems to have been averted. As recommended by the EU, Immuni does not use GPS tracing to record the position of people, but only the encounter between the Bluetooth signals from nearby users to discover close encounters. The app allows smartphones to exchange anonymous messages, and the identification of “at-risk” phones takes place on the phones themselves, without even relaying this information to the health authorities. The “DP-3T” algorithm has been adopted, which is considered to be the most secure algorithm for privacy. All thanks to the helpful technical assistance from Google and Apple, which, due to the fact that they control 100% of the software present on our mobile phones, can decide which data an app installed on a smartphone can access.

The phones will also communicate with a central computer managed by the state, called the “back end.” But nothing is yet known about the software that will be used during this phase of the app’s functioning. According to some experts, without this information it’s not really possible to judge how the app works: “It’s like saying that just from the fact you have a bus ticket you can also examine the bus itself,” tweeted Matteo Flora, a hacker, lecturer and entrepreneur in the field of computer data analysis.

A more optimistic note was struck by Denis “Jaromil” Roio, a well-known programmer and activist in the world of open source software: “Overall, it’s the best software I’ve seen so far,” i.e. among those employed by governments. “But the question remains: is a proximity tracking system really useful?” It goes much further than the app: many experts have reiterated that contact tracing requires personnel, investments and diagnostic capabilities.

At the Ministry of Health, there is an awareness that the success of Immuni cannot be taken for granted, including in terms of communication. Despite the warnings of Minister Speranza on the danger of a resurgence of the epidemic—“over the weekend we have reached 100,000 new cases per day in the world, and 5.5 million in total,” he recalled on Facebook—public opinion seems to want to put the epidemic alarm and the related prevention tools behind us.

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