A new monitoring system funded under the European Open Science Cloud initiative will allow users with symptoms of coronavirus to participate in national track-and-trace while maintaining privacy.
The European Open Science Cloud Secretariat initiative has approved €1,235,000 in emergency funding for 32 projects to specifically tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the new apps the initiative is supporting is called Tracing Ireland’s Population (TIP), which will focus on giving users with coronavirus symptoms ownership of their personal data and will be available to download on 10 July.
WHY IT MATTERS
With mounting concerns over tracing systems for COVID-19 becoming a source of mass surveillance, researchers have cautioned governments that contact tracing apps must only be used to support public health measures for the containment of COVID-19.
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Addressing these issues, TIP invites users to participate via an ‘opt-in’ facility, which can be removed or deleted at any time, rather than an automated program collecting and storing information to be used at a later date.
While some platforms exchange data with nearby strangers and store it remotely, the new TIP app claims to act more like a digital version of a manual tracer.
The goal of the app is to accumulate a picture of local infection clusters so that targeted areas can be restricted rather than implementing a blanket ban.
Co-creator, Dr Paul Byrnes said: “With no use of Bluetooth or GPS tagging, our app instead allows someone who shows strong symptoms of COVID-19 to submit their phone’s IP address which is stored in an encrypted form.
“The user then submits the phone numbers of anyone they have been in contact with, who then receive a push notification and details of how to arrange an appointment for testing. They can choose to engage with it or ignore it.”
THE LARGER CONTEXT
Meanwhile, many tracing apps like TraceTogether used in Singapore communicate with copies of themselves on nearby devices over Bluetooth. When a user confirms they have been infected with COVID-19, everyone who has been close to that person’s phone will get a notification that they may have the virus.
In recent months, the government’s NHSX app proposal has received criticism over implications that it may be stored and used for future research purposes. In an open letter, published on 19 April, academics from 26 countries issuing a warning that contact tracing apps could hamper trust.
MobiHealthNews also reported on 50 worldwide COVID-19 apps analysed in Nature Medicine that showed that only 16 promised to anonymise, encrypt and secure the data they collect.
ON THE RECORD
Byrnes said: “Alexa will invade your privacy more than our app does. No person who uses our app is identifiable: we take 25 data points, and only 3 of which are personal – the IP address, the phone number and the county. We don’t ask for your name, age, sex, or employment status.”
“Like many contact-tracing systems hoping to end blanket lockdowns by providing an accurate, targeted picture of infections, our new facility looks set to enable smaller, localised restrictions.”
“The success of any contact-tracing app depends on whether people will engage with it, and if they don’t trust it, they won’t use it. It’s that simple.”