HSE confirms contact-tracing app won’t be released by end of May

21 May 2020

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As Apple and Google launch their joint API for contact-tracing apps, the HSE said that the Irish app won’t be released to the public this month.

Apple and Google have jointly released their Exposure Notification API this week, allowing international developers in various nations to build contact-tracing apps around the companies’ privacy model. However, the HSE has said there is currently no release date for the Irish app that will use this API, despite previously saying that it planned to launch a pilot version this month.

It follows substantial debate over whether countries working on contact-tracing apps should focus on a decentralised or centralised solution. In a decentralised solution – put forward by Apple and Google – data is stored on the user’s device, whereas a centralised solution would store information on a specific set of servers.

In a joint statement, Apple and Google said: “Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with Covid-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app.

“Today, this technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts.”

No launch date

Ireland’s app is under development by Waterford-based company Nearform. However, speaking with the Irish Independent, a HSE spokesperson said there was no confirmed launch date for the app.

The app is “on track” to complete development by the end of the month, they said, which will be followed by a “large-scale field test” ahead of a public release. They added that a Data Protection Impact Assessment will be done in parallel with a field test.

“The app will be available when it is fully operational and when all approvals are in place from the relevant authorities, as part of the implementation of the Covid-19 roadmap for recovery,” the spokesperson said.

Apple and Google said public health agencies from 22 countries had already requested access to their system, but the HSE would not comment on whether Ireland has requested access to the newly released interface.

Many questions remain

Apps that use the Exposure Notification API will not be allowed to track a user’s location or gather identifiable information on a user. Rather, they will identify when one person comes in close contact with another on a given day based off Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ from their devices. If one of these users reports that they have tested positive for Covid-19, those who have come into close contact with them will receive a notification.

However, debate continues over what percentage of a nation’s population need to download such an app before it is effective in tracing the spread of the coronavirus. In the case of Iceland, one of the officials overseeing the roll-out of its contact-tracing app – downloaded by 40pc of the country – said it “wasn’t a game changer for us”.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the app released by the NHS – which uses a centralised model different to Apple and Google – was found to have a number of security flaws. In a report, security researchers highlighted serious issues such as unencrypted data being stored on phones that could be used by law enforcement to see when two or more people gathered.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic