Contact tracing: Ireland launches its app following Apple and Google's model

The UK's neighbor has successfully launched its COVID Tracker app, choosing the tech giants' decentralized approach.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Ireland is the latest European country to successfully launch a national contact-tracing app designed to support the manual program of tracking down and warning people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

The country's health services executive (HSE) confirmed that the COVID Tracker app is now available to download nationwide in Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store. 

Developed by Irish software company Nearform, COVID Tracker leverages the Exposure Notification API developed by Apple and Google, which is available in the latest versions of iOS (iOS 13.5) and Android (Android 6.0). 

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The API taps Bluetooth, which will need to be activated on the user's phone, to continuously scan for other phones nearby. Using anonymous IDs, it logs any phone in the environment that also has the API-based app installed, as well as the distance between devices and the length of exposure.

Every two hours, COVID Tracker downloads the list of anonymous IDs that have been shared with HSE by people using the app who have tested positive for coronavirus. If the user has been closer than two meters, and for more than 15 minutes, with any of the phones associated with the anonymous IDs, they will receive a notification that they are a close contact.

The HSE told ZDNet that the app has gone through a robust testing programme, showing that the technology can accurately detect 72% of close contacts thanks to Google and Apple's API. 

"The major benefit of the app is that it now enables the contact tracing team to reach people that are unknown to each other, which was not possible before," said an HSE spokesperson.

This is a key improvement as the country re-opens, and residents start visiting family and friends, socializing, shopping, returning to work or using public transport. 

"Combining the close contacts notified through the app with those identified through the existing contact-tracing process allows us to reach more people with the right advice and access to testing, which will increase our ability to continue to suppress the virus," continued the spokesperson.

On top of contact tracing, COVID Tracker also includes an optional "Check-in" function to allow users to share whether they are showing symptoms of the virus with the HSE. When checking in, users can provide their sex, age range, county and town, and record symptoms such as cough, breathing difficulties or temperature. 

The app stores a rolling 28 days' worth of symptoms – or lack of – and is meant to help users remember the exact date they started feeling ill. The data will also be used to create an anonymous collective daily overview of the progression of the virus.

Ahead of the national release of the contact-tracing app, the HSE published the technology's source code on GitHub, along with a series of app-design and development reports, and a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA).

A DPIA is mandatory under GDPR rules for any project that is considered high risk for user data. It consists of defining exactly what data the project uses and how it will protect it.

COVID Tracker's DPIA stresses that Bluetooth interactions will be recorded anonymously in the app, and that users will be able to choose if they want to alert other app users that they have tested positive for the virus. Any symptoms recorded as part of the "Check-in" feature will also remain anonymous.

In addition, users are given the option to delete the app at any time, and to wipe out their data in the process. The government has committed to dismantle the operation of the app once the COVID-19 crisis is over.

The HSE also highlighted that COVID Tracker is based on Apple and Google's decentralized model, which means that close-contact data is stored on the users' phones and not on a government server. 

"Supporting the development of the technology, a program of public health research has been completed to ensure the app is easy to use, protects privacy, and supports users over time," said the HSE.

"Employing the decentralized model using the Google/Apple API fully aligns the Irish app with the privacy principles and public health guidance issued by the EU Commission, the OECD, the WHO and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control."

SEE: Contact-tracing app: How did the UK go so badly wrong?

The health services organization pointed to the findings of independent research firm Lero, which showed that 82% of the Irish population said that they would be willing to download the contact-tracing app to help curb the spread of the virus.

The next step for the HSE will be to work on interoperability between COVID Tracker and similar apps around Europe. The organization said that it was in regular contact with counterparts in Northern Ireland and England, and that it had given them full access to developments in the Irish app.

Ireland's COVID Tracker comes as the country's neighbor struggles to release a working contact-tracing app. The UK announced last April that it would home-grow a centralized technology, instead of adopting the decentralized API proposed by Apple and Google.

A few months later, the UK government U-turned on its decision, and abandoned the original designs for the app. NHSX is now in talks with the tech giants to develop a new tool, although it is still unclear when the technology will be ready, and what it will be for exactly.

In the meantime, the UK is counting on a nationwide manual contact-tracing program that started last month. The government, however, is yet to complete a DPIA for the program, which is raising concern among privacy activists.

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