Q&A: How will Switzerland's coronavirus tracing app work?

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Q&A: How will Switzerland's coronavirus tracing app work?
The interface of the SwissCovid app. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Switzerland's coronavirus tracing app was launched on Thursday, June 25th. Here's what you need to know about it and how it will work.


Swiss researchers from the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich (ETH) and Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a contact tracing app which has been released on Thursday, June 25th.

The app received final parliamentary approval on Friday June 19th and is regulated by the Data Protection Act and the Epidemics Act.

It has been given the name 'SwissCovid'. 

The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health hopes the app will curb the spread of the virus by allowing for the tracking of infection chains. 

On Wednesday, June 24th, the Federal Council agreed to cover the costs of coronavirus tests for anyone who receives a warning notice via the app. 

Image: SwissCovid/ETH

What is contact tracing?

The process involves identifying contaminated people, so that measures can be taken to prevent the spread of infection on to others.

It is all the more important in cases when the sick person has no symptoms and may not even know they are sick.

Once the infected person is identified, efforts are made to locate and test the people they have been in contact with within the past two weeks. If one of those contacts is found to be infected, the investigation starts again.

How does the app work?

The app uses bluetooth to digitally trace contact in order to get a more accurate idea for how the virus is spreading within the general public - and how to stop it. 

The app registers when an individual comes into contact with other individuals through a person’s smartphone location systems and bluetooth. 

READ: Swiss scientists launch a new app to collect Covid-19 data

Contact is traced when one person with the app is less than two metres from another person with the app for more than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. 

Such contacts are recorded anonymously on both devices. 

If one of those users tests positive for the coronavirus, the person will receive a 'covid code' from the cantonal authorities.

Using this code, those who have been in contact with the positive person will be notified via the app. Once notified, users will be asked to contact the Swiss coronavirus hotline.

A trial version of the app is available from Google and Apple, although the general public is encouraged not to use it until the trial phase is over. 


Why was the app delayed? 

Originally, the app was to be released on May 11th but it is now not expected until the end of June at the earliest. 

The main reason for the delay was that the government wanted to ensure the app complied with data protection laws, while changes to the Epidemic Act also needed to be made. 

Another reason for the delay was that the government needed to wait for Google and Apple to finish their bluetooth interfaces for contact tracing. 

Will it be compulsory? 

No. The app is voluntary. 

The government has also promised that the app will be discontinued when the virus can be brought under control by other means. 

Some Swiss politicians have argued that the app must be made mandatory. 

SVP councillor Andrea Gmür said “for the app to be effective, it needs to be mandatory during the acute emergency phase”. 

At this stage however the government has said it will remain voluntary. 


How much will it cost?

The app is free for all smartphone users. 

What do users need to do? 

Once the app is installed, all users need to do is make sure their phone - and bluetooth - are switched on. 

Will it be effective? 

With contact tracing apps proving effective in several Asian countries, researchers have been looking to implement something similar in Switzerland. 

There have however been privacy protection issues, as well as concerns that it will not be effective unless it is downloaded by at least 60 percent of Swiss society. 

EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system look in Switzerland? 

Researchers from Oxford University have said that the app will be ineffective with a lower percentage signup. 

How about privacy concerns? 

Switzerland had initially been a part of a European initiative on contract tracing, but withdrew due to privacy concerns. 

They did so after realising that user data would not be protected, and went on launch the D3-PT system which, they said, would be more “decentralised and transparent”.

The DP-3T app uses decentralised information which better protects personal data as it can less easily be collated, stored and harvested. 

In a decentralised system, the information is stored on users phones rather than in a database. Information is deleted automatically after three weeks. 

Location data is not stored as bluetooth only determines how close phones are to each other, not where they are in Switzerland - this is why bluetooth rather than GPS has been preferred. 

When information is sent from a user's phone to a server in the case of an infection, this information is encrypted. 

In a statement, the creators have said that the system protects the privacy of app users. 

"The aim of the system is to minimise the risks to the privacy and security of individuals and communities and to guarantee the highest level of data protection". 


Will it work outside Switzerland? 

Although other countries are working on their tracing apps, as yet SwissCovid will only have limited international compatibility. 



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