HSE announces coronavirus contact-tracing app, but privacy concerns remain

30 Mar 2020

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The HSE is set to launch a contact-tracing app in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but concerns have been raised over how it handles user data.

A number of countries have released apps designed to help track the spread of the coronavirus, using Bluetooth and phone proximity to alert people when they’ve been in close contact with someone who has contracted Covid-19.

Now, the Irish Government is following suit, with the HSE planning to roll out its own app. At a briefing yesterday (29 March), the health service’s head of communications, Paul Connors, said the app was a “cross-Government effort” that will likely be released in a matter of days.

According to a report in the Business Post, the app uses short-distance Bluetooth to signal where users are near to each other and records this information. If a person is confirmed to test positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, everyone who came within close contact of them for a prolonged period of time will be notified.

The app will be opt-in, Connors added, but will have additional features such as being able to report on your wellbeing, which will be fed back to the HSE for future tracking of the spread of the virus.

However, concerns have been raised that while such an app could be effective for tracking the spread of the coronavirus, the long-term implications for user privacy could be damaging if not managed properly.

The Singapore example

The HSE said that the agencies it is working with to develop the app include the Data Protection Commission, with the aim of ensuring it is GDPR compliant. However, speaking with The Irish Times, solicitor and privacy expert Simon McGarr said that there is little information available at the moment to know where data generated on the app is stored.

Furthermore, he said that the HSE should reveal who has access to the data and how it will be distributed.

“It will be relevant when we start to try to go back to work,” he said.

“Then it will allow us to catch and isolate outbreaks much faster. But if they make mistakes now, they will damage the implementation and take-up we need for it to be widespread later.”

Siliconrepublic.com has reached out to the HSE to clarify where the app’s data is stored and whether privacy groups have been consulted for its development.

Singapore’s government recently made the software for its own contact-tracing app – Trace Together – freely available for developer use worldwide.

The app uses Bluetooth to identify when a person has been within two metres of a coronavirus patient for at least 30 minutes. In this case, the country’s government said that the only data it will collect is the user’s mobile phone number. At least 620,000 people have downloaded the app, with the government stating that all user data will be deleted once the pandemic has subsided.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic