Northern Ireland beats England to contact-tracing app launch

The UK region launched a contact-tracing app based on the same platform as the Republic of Ireland.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Northern Ireland has become the first region in the UK to release a contact-tracing app. Dubbed StopCOVID NI, the Bluetooth-based proximity app is now available to download from the Apple and Google app stores for residents of Northern Ireland. 

StopCOVID NI will support the existing telephone-based contact-tracing operation underway in the region by anonymously alerting users if they have been in close contact with another user who has tested positive for the virus. 

The tool was built on the same platform as the CovidTracker app, which launched in the Republic of Ireland earlier this month. Both apps will be interoperable, which means that users testing positive in the UK will be able to warn contacts south of the border via the app, and vice versa.

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Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann said: "It will only take a few short minutes to download and activate this app. This could be the most important thing you do all week. It could prevent you from spreading the virus to people you care about."

Irish company NearForm led the development of CovidTracker and StopCOVID NI, building both apps on the back of the API released by Google and Apple to facilitate the development of decentralised contact-tracing technologies. 

The approach put forward by Google and Apple taps Bluetooth signals to let smartphones register close contacts with other users by exchanging non-identifiable numbers with one another. 

When a patient tests positive for COVID-19 in Northern Ireland, they will receive a code by text message, and be invited to enter it in the app. This will trigger a 'Bluetooth handshake', and allow the app to automatically warn the users who have been registered as close contacts.

Because all of the operations that might involve privacy are carried out locally, on users' phones, rather than through a central database, Apple and Google's protocol has repeatedly been pitched as protecting privacy by design. 

Northern Ireland's chief digital information officer for health and care Dan West said last week that interoperability could "theoretically" be established with any other app that uses the same architecture provided by Google and Apple, so long as bilateral data sharing agreements are in place with different jurisdictions.

Colm Harte, technical director at NearForm, told ZDNet that although his team applied learnings from building the Irish app to accelerate the creation of StopCOVID NI, the two technologies are not the same.

"We took our platform as a base to set up the new app, but from an app perspective, the Northern Irish version is completely different," he said. "It's an app to meet their specific needs."

Harte presented StopCOVID NI in front of the Northern Ireland Assembly last week. The app only offers digital contact-tracing services, as opposed to its Irish counterpart, which also includes an optional 'Check-in' function to allow users to share whether they are showing symptoms of the virus with the public health services.

Harte stressed that the uptake of CovidTracker in the Republic of Ireland had been very successful, with almost 1.5 million downloads -- about a third of the population.

Privacy issues

However, there has also been criticism from a team of researchers who found some privacy issues with the app. A report from Trinity College Dublin showed that Google Play Services sends highly sensitive data to Google servers, which includes SIM serial numbers, phone numbers and Gmail addresses. Enabling CovidTracker makes it impossible to turn off Google Play Services.

The researchers stressed that the privacy issues are tied to Android's setup, and as such go beyond the CovidTracker app. An HSE spokesperson said: "Security has been a priority and the code has been reviewed both by Edgescan and the code review group in Science Foundation Ireland. We will work with these groups to continue to ensure the integrity and security of the app through new releases as necessary."

The team behind the Northern Irish app has also been consulting with leading privacy groups to develop StopCOVID NI, such as the Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland and Amnesty International. The region's health services said that the technology was designed using the Information Commissioners Office's 'privacy by design' principles. 

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A Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) is also being carried out for the app to define exactly what data is used and how to best protect it. A DPIA is mandatory under GDPR rules for any project that is considered high risk for user data.

In the rest of the UK, there is little sign that a contact-tracing app will be released anytime soon. The UK's NHSX initially opted for a centralised technology, rather than building an app on top of Google and Apple's API. After many delays due to technical difficulties, the organisation changed the original plans, admitting that the tech giants' approach would be more suitable.

Northern Ireland's health services expect that StopCOVID NI will be interoperable with apps introduced in the future in the rest of the UK.

In the meantime, the UK is counting on a nationwide manual contact-tracing program that started last month. The government, however, has recognised that the program launched without completing a DPIA, which is raising concern among privacy activists.

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