Insurtech Wefox part of startup group working on coronavirus tracking app

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(Bloomberg) -- A group of German startups are working on an application that will help the government track people who have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and, ultimately, ease restrictions when the pandemic begins to subside.

Startups including insurance firm Wefox Group Services GmbH, software provider Finleap and artificial intelligence platform Arago announced the app in a website that went live on Wednesday.

Arago, which is run by Chris Boos, an adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is developing the privacy framework the app will be based on. The opt-in application that would map close contacts anonymously in case a sick person fails to recall all of their interactions.

The entrepreneurs are working with government agencies for public health and telecommunications -- the Robert Koch Institute and the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich-Hertz-Institute -- which will test the app’s accuracy before it goes to the government for approval, people familiar with the matter said. If the government signs off, the application could be rolled out as soon as next week, they said.

The government is looking for a “technically possible and politically realizable” way to use technology to follow and break the chain of infection, the Ministry of Health said in an emailed statement. It’s accompanying the development of different technologies, including ways to determine the contacts of infected people, the ministry said.

RKI referred questions to Fraunhofer-HHI, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The framework -- known as Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing -- provides standards, technology, and services to countries and developers across eight European countries. Partners include Vodafone Group Plc, according to PEPPPT’s website.

Tracking down everyone who came into contact with each newly infected person has taken up a tremendous amount of time and effort for local health authorities, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

“Now we need to have a debate about whether we can do this with purely analog measures,” Spahn said, “or whether this would be a lot quicker with digital measures, such as mobile phone location information. I would guess the latter.”

Germany’s not the only country looking for a digital solution. Austria and the U.K. are also testing virus-tracking apps to help them find people who have been exposed to Covid-19 and may ultimately show the governments a way out of the restrictive social-isolation measures that are keeping schools, shops and restaurants closed.

The app is designed to work using data collected from a combination of location-tracking functions, one of the people said. If a user downloads the program after becoming infected, the app will access the phone’s stored GPS data and send a push notification to those who were in the same areas. If someone gets the app ahead of time, the phone’s Bluetooth connection will be activated and will provide a more accurate depiction of which users have been in close contact, the person said.

Still, the system would rely on widespread downloads, and Germans are notoriously protective of their data. Information collected by the application will remain solely on the user’s device, one of the people said.

Read more: In a Pandemic, Be Like Google, Privacy Activist Urges Europe

Even if tracking apps are used on a voluntary basis, they still raise privacy concerns, said Tom Fisher, a senior research officer at Privacy International. Researchers would want to ensure the app is secure before use and examine any other trackers tied to the app, review the privacy policy and understand what’s being done with the data, he said.

“We’re living in extraordinary times and facing this severe health-emergency situation but it’s still essential that the response of governments and the companies to this still respects privacy,” Fisher said.

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