Government tight-lipped on how Covid-19 tracing app will work

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The Government is remaining tight-lipped as to how its coming tracing smartphone app for Covid-19 will function despite seeming to contravene new rules set out for it by Apple and Google.

Ireland’s smartphone app has been in development now for over a month, having initially been expected to be published in the first 10 days of April.

Controversy has dogged the project from its inception with the State last week changing tack on the format that the application will take, moving it from a centralised to a decentralised (one where data is held locally on a user’s phone only) format after the two smartphone giants stated the latter is the form their own template will follow.

Both the HSE and the Department of Health declined to comment directly as to how the application will adhere to latest guidance from Apple and Google, who themselves became embroiled in the quest to deliver a smartphone solution to the pandemic crisis in mid-April.

Given that the two tech giants are responsible for 99% of the world’s smartphone market their input as to how tracing apps will work is regarded as key to the success of any individual project.

Over the weekend the two – for whom the development of a universal Application Programming Interface (API) for Covid-19 apps has presented a novel collaboration – published new policies for developers. 

One of those policies ruled that any developer seeking to acquire a user’s GPS location data, or even posing the question, would have their project banned from either company’s app store.

The Department of Health confirmed last week that the new application, now slated for release in late May, will indeed request location data, but from a symptom-tracking point of view as opposed to contact tracing.

“It is intended to give people the option of volunteering their general locality from which the symptoms are reported,” a briefing memo prepared for Minister for Health Simon Harris said.

“This is of substantial value for public health by allowing mapping and modelling to monitor and manage the disease at population level and it is our goal to achieve this value in a manner that does not compromise the privacy of app users.”

Asked how the Irish app would avoid the issue of Apple and Google banning anything even requesting location data from their respective online stores, a Department of Health spokesperson referred the Irish Examiner to the initial memo prepared for the Minister.

The HSE likewise referred the query back to last week’s update.

The new app would appear to be in a double quandary given the advice on Covid tracking apps published by the European Data Protection Board – of which the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) is a member – on 21 April.

That advice stressed that any application under development “must pursue the sole purpose of contact tracing so that people potentially exposed to the SARS-Cov-2 virus can be alerted and taken care of”.

However, Ireland’s app is currently slated to gather information and location data on people’s symptoms, together with tracing their contacts, appearing to directly contravene the EDPB’s guidance.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the DPC said the HSE and Department of Health “have been in contact with us over recent weeks as they work to develop this app and we understand that they will be sending us the data protection impact assessment for our views shortly”.

Sinn Fein health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly meanwhile said the app must have one single purpose.

“The Government needs to recognise that it has to build trust in any app it proposes,” she said. 

“Tracking people’s movement will not be tolerated and will result in low adoption rates.”



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