Rome looks to app to control spread of coronavirus

Rome looks to app to control spread of coronavirus
As part of efforts to lift the nationwide lockdown as soon as possible, Coronavirus Procurement Commissioner Domenico Arcuri on Friday approved a deal for a tracking app to help in the battle against COVID-19. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 17 April 2020

Rome looks to app to control spread of coronavirus

Rome looks to app to control spread of coronavirus
  • Italy hopes controversial technology for tracking people will allow it to end lockdown

ROME: While the business community presses Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to end the lockdown soon and Catholic bishops hope to restart Church masses and funeral ceremonies, the Italian government is going digital against the coronavirus (COVID-19) infection. The Cabinet gave the green light to a deal for a smartphone app to track people who test positive for COVID-19.

As part of efforts to lift the nationwide lockdown as soon as possible, Coronavirus Procurement Commissioner Domenico Arcuri on Friday approved a deal for a tracking app to help in the battle against COVID-19.

Italy has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe with more than 22,000 fatalities, second only in the world to the US. The government last week extended the national lockdown until May 3 but is looking at ways to loosen the draconian restrictions imposed more than a month ago to curb the epidemic.

Smartphone apps and other technology have been used in Asian countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, to control the spread of the virus, but there are deep misgivings in Europe over the potential for data abuse and privacy violations. The EU ordered that the installation of such technology should remain on a voluntary basis and assure the highest anonymity. Italy decided to do this to quicken the reopening of the economy as the business community is urging.

“We are working on testing a contact-tracing app in some Italian regions,” Domenico Arcuri, the government’s special commissioner for the COVID-19 emergency, told a press conference at the Civil Protection Headquarters. He said that the government aims to make the app available to the entire country after the regional tests have been completed. “It will be a pillar of our strategy to deal with the post-emergency phase,” Arcuri said.

Last month Italy’s Innovation Ministry launched a tender for app developers volunteering their services. “We received hundreds of proposals in a heartbeat, and we examined them all thoroughly so that we could make sure that efficiency and privacy would be guaranteed,” Innovation minister Paola Pisano said. A special committee selected the product put forward by the Milan-based company Bending Spoons.

Bending Spoons develops apps ranging from fitness to video-editing tools, and is part of the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative. PEPP-PT is promoting a European platform to allow national contact-tracing apps “talk” to each other across borders.

According to the daily newspaper Il Tempo in Rome, Luigi, Barbara and Eleonora Berlusconi, the youngest children of the media tycoon and former prime minister of Italy, are among the company’ shareholders with their H14 investment fund.

The application, initially named Immuni, uses Bluetooth technology to record when users are in close proximity with each other, people with knowledge of the matter said. If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the app would send an alert to users who have been in contact with the infected individual, recommending actions such as self-quarantine and virus testing while preserving anonymity.

Advocates of Bluetooth technology say this method is a more accurate and less intrusive way to log proximity and the length of contact than location-tracking based on networks or satellites, which have been used in some Asian countries.

Commissioner Arcuri specified the app will be used voluntarily, in line with recommendations by Italy’s data protection authority and European privacy rules. “But our hope is that Italian citizens will adopt it massively, as everyone’s support in this country is needed to make a contact-tracing system work,” he said. According to experts in the Innovation and Health ministries in Rome the app needs to be downloaded by at least 60 percent of the population to be effective in achieving so-called digital herd immunity.

“That’s the best we have available so far, and I am confident that Italian people will follow our advice and use the app. This is for everyone’s safety and sake, and we hope that it will give us all massive help,” Pisano added. “The government will do its best to promote its use.”

The government’s statistics agency Istat revealed that the increase in deaths in the country has been more than 20 percent up in the period between March 1 and April 4 2020 compared to the average figure for the same period in the years 2015-2019.

Italy is unlikely to follow Germany’s lead into reopening schools in May.

“The government will take a decision within days, but in the current health situation reopening in May becomes less likely with every passing day. It would mean mobilizing 8 million students”, Education Minister Lucia Azzolina told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. She said that she also does “not like the idea of students with masks at school” and that it would be impractical to ask children to respect social distancing.

The Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) claims social distancing can be kept in churches and is planning to start holding regular religious services after May 3 when the lockdown is scheduled to end. More than 100 priests have died in Italy so far from COVID-19, the Italian Bishops revealed in a press conference. “They have offered up their lives, expressing once again the beautiful face of the church,” a spokesman said.


Russia detains dozens of Navalny supporters at anti-Putin protests

Russia detains dozens of Navalny supporters at anti-Putin protests
Updated 23 January 2021

Russia detains dozens of Navalny supporters at anti-Putin protests

Russia detains dozens of Navalny supporters at anti-Putin protests
  • The first protests took place in the Far East and Siberia
  • Authorities vowed a tough crackdown with police saying unsanctioned public events would be “immediately suppressed”

MOSCOW: Russian police detained dozens of protesters on Saturday as supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets following his call to protest against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Putin’s most vocal domestic critic called for mass rallies after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent and returning to Moscow last weekend following months of treatment in Germany. He was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport and jailed.
The rallies — planned for dozens of cities across Russia — are expected to be a major test of the opposition’s ability to mobilize despite the increasing Kremlin pressure on critics and the coronavirus pandemic.
The first protests took place in the Far East and Siberia including Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Chita where several thousand took to the streets, Navalny supporters said.
OVD Info, which monitors detentions at opposition rallies, said around 50 people were detained in 10 cities.
Authorities vowed a tough crackdown with police saying unsanctioned public events would be “immediately suppressed.”
In Moscow, which usually mobilizes the largest rallies, protesters plan to meet in the central Pushkin Square at 2:00 p.m. (1100 GMT) and then march toward the Kremlin.

On the eve of the rallies, Navalny, who is being held in Moscow’s high-security Matrosskaya Tishina jail, thanked his supporters.
“I know perfectly well that there are lots of good people outside of my prison’s walls and help will come,” he said on Friday.
Navalny’s wife Yulia said she would join the protest in Moscow. “For myself, for him, for our children, for the values and the ideals that we share,” she said on Instagram.
Ahead of the demonstrations several key Navalny aides were taken into police custody for violating protest laws and handed short jail sentences to keep them away from the rallies.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said Friday it launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorized protests.
A hastily organized court on Monday jailed Navalny for 30 days, and his supporters fear that authorities are preparing to sentence him to a long prison term to silence him.
Navalny’s team this week released an investigation into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin.
The “Putin’s palace” report alleges the Russian leader owns a 17,691 square meter mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco and features a casino along with a theater and a hookah lounge complete with a pole-dancing stage.
The two-hour video report had been viewed more than 65 million times since Tuesday, becoming the Kremlin critic’s most-watched YouTube investigation.
The Kremlin has denied the property belongs to Putin.
Many Russians took to social media — including video sharing app TikTok hugely popular with teens — to voice support and urge a large turnout on Saturday.
A hashtag demanding freedom for Navalny was trending on TikTok as Russians flooded the Chinese app with thousands of videos.
Russia’s media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.
The watchdog said on Friday that media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, removed content at its request.
Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte blocked groups created to coordinate the protests in different cities.
But a number of public figures — including those who usually steer clear of politics — have spoken out in Navalny’s support.
Navalny, 44, rose to prominence a decade ago and has become the central figure of Russia’s opposition movement, leading large-scale street protests against corruption and electoral fraud.
His arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France and Canada all calling for his release.