Spain’s Coronavirus tracing app tries to balance public health with privacy

“What doesn’t RadarCOVID do?” ask a promotional video of the Spain contact tracing app. The answer: while browsing the country’s decentralized healthcare system, it does not locate users, identify them, record personal data, or submit data.

Without a vaccine or cure for the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 1 million people around the world, countries around the world have unleashed such technology to help break the chain of infections.

The contact tracing tools of some governments use location data. But that tool is not available under European privacy laws in countries like Spain. Instead, they use Bluetooth to generate anonymous codes that record the proximity between people’s phones.

Most applications in the region, many of them based on a framework designed by Apple AAPL.O and Google GOOGL.O, prioritize data protection, making it difficult to measure its usefulness.

RadarCOVID developers also had to navigate Spain’s healthcare system, which delegates responsibility to 17 regions.

“Our system is so complex that we have to simplify everything possible,” Carme Artigas, head of the state artificial and digital intelligence unit, told us in her Madrid office.

“It works in the background. You forget about it and it is your protective shield, ”he said.

More than 4 million people have downloaded the app in Spanish, Artigas said, to half the 20% of the population who suggested a pilot conducted in July on a small island to make the app useful.

Now it is up to regional authorities to incorporate the technology into their systems, said Artigas, a process already completed in 75% of the country.

With cases increasing faster and its visitor-dependent economy sinking, Spain also has a particular interest in developing ways to allow European applications to exchange data.

Artigas said Spain would help test that “roaming” capability in October, and that the app was designed with goals like this in mind.

“We released it in English from the beginning,” he said.