Corona virus: Swiss tracing app goes into field trials


The pilot test of the “SwissCovid app” has started in Switzerland. The application is intended to supplement contact tracing in the cantons, the Federal Office of Public Health (BAG) said. The app should help to ensure that infection chains can be tracked and interrupted. For the first time, the API provided by Google and Apple is being widely tested with an app. The Swiss government – the Federal Council – issued a temporary regulation for the test last week.

15,000 volunteers took part in the test, including employees from the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne and Zurich (EPFL and ETHZ), members of the army or staff from hospitals and administrations. The pilot trial will last until the end of June 2020 at the latest and is intended to uncover potential defects and problems in usability and medical processes before the app is released to the public, the BAG said.

Switzerland is the first country in the world to use the new “Exposure Notification API” from Google and Apple for its tracing app. Swiss scientists were also involved in the development of the app. The “basic theoretical concepts for this come from EPFL and ETHZ, which were finally implemented by Google and Apple,” emphasized Sang-Il Kim from the BAG. “Significantly involved” were EPFL professor Marcel Salathé and his team.

They belong to an international consortium that has developed the DP3T protocol (Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing). The decentralized approach pursued with DP3T had prevailed in the competition of the concepts against the PEPP-PT, which was initially also supported by the German government. An app without central data storage can eliminate the “understandable concern” about surveillance, said Salathé on Monday.

The app runs in the background on the smartphone with the latest versions of iOS and Android and is not able to record location or movement data, explained Salathé. Using the app with GPS activated at the same time is technically excluded. Google and Apple would have explicitly prevented this in the development of the new interface. The SwissCovid app only records the proximity to other smartphones for a certain time and stores this data on the phone.

The BAG emphasizes that the app only serves the purpose of warning users early if they may have been exposed to the corona virus. The use of the app is voluntary and participation or non-participation must not result in any disadvantages or advantages. The Federal Council will put the system out of operation as soon as it is no longer required to combat the coronavirus. In addition, the technical details and source code will be available for a public security test from May 28th.

According to a survey commissioned by the BAG at the end of April 2020, 70 percent of Swiss people welcome the launch of the app. Almost 60 percent of the respondents indicated that they would like to install the app in the next few weeks, but half are not yet completely convinced of this (“rather yes”). The higher the level of knowledge about how the app works, the greater the willingness to install, explains the survey institute. Nevertheless, a majority of the respondents (54 percent) are against an installation obligation.

On May 20, the Federal Council also passed the legal basis for the new SwissCovid app. To this end, the Epidemic Act is to be amended accordingly. In June the Swiss parliament wants to discuss and decide on this. At the beginning of May, both chambers of the Swiss parliament, the Council of States and the National Council, voted on the introduction of a contact tracing app and demanded that a legal basis for such an app first be created.


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