How apps are playing their part in COVID-19

by: Maria Colgan

Technology is playing an increasingly important role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only is it playing its part in connecting us, it’s providing us with platforms to work, learn and interact with one another as we navigate our new norm of working remotely. An now it’s creating opportunities for countries globally to combat the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing apps. Here is a list of countries from around the world and the apps they are using for contact tracing.

Covid Symptom Tracker UK

More than 2.6 million people have signed up to COVID Symptom Tracker in the UK to tell the app if they are feeling unwell from Covid-19 and the symptoms they’re experiencing. The app has been developed by London based developers Zoe Global in conjunction with King’s College London. It’s been supported by the NHS Whales and Scotland but not England, as of yet. The aim of the app is to help track the spread of the virus. The more people who use the app the more accurate the data will be at identifying COVID-19 in the UK. The app shows users how much of the virus is in their area. So far it’s helped identify pockets of the outbreak in Lancaster, Nuneaton just outside Coventry, Pendle and Hyndburn and Blaenau Gwent in Wales. All data is anonymous. 

The NHS is also working on a contact tracing app. The app will need 60% of the population to use it in order for it to be successful. That’s approximately 40 million people in the UK. The app will alert users if they have been near someone who has developed symptoms of the disease. It will also tell users if the person they were near tested positive.

Immuni Italy

Immuni is similar to the contact tracing app being developed in the UK. Immuni has been developed by Milan based developers Bending Spoons. It will need 60% of the population to use the app, again equating to approximately 40 million people across Italy. All data is anonymous. The app uses Bluetooth technology and will be piloted in a few regions once is has been passed in Parliament. 

Contact tracing through Bluetooth technology assesses the closeness and length of contact between people. If a person tests positive for COVID-19 all contacts will be informed. There has been a lot of pushback about this from the international community with 300 scientists publishing an open letter saying if contact tracing was centralised it would be “unprecedented surveillance of society at large”. Hence the reason why Germany has moved away from the Italian backed Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT).

Germany

Germany initially considered a centralised approached with PEPP-PT but after issues they’ve confirmed they are taking a decentralised approach. There has been many concerns raised in Europe about a centralised approach, which would see pseudonymised proximity data being stored and processed on a server controlled by a national authority. Privacy experts have warned that this is veering towards state surveillance. By going with a decentralised approach it means that ephemeral IDs are stored locally on the mobile device and only upload with the users permission after they’ve been confirmed as having COVID-19. 

This move by Germany was also forced by the joint decision between Apple and Google announcing support for a decentralised approach. This was a blow to the PEPP-PT approach as iOS limits background access to Bluetooth for privacy and security reasons. 

The European Commission has also recommended using a decentralised approach to help boost trust in apps to encourage wider adoption.

South Korea

South Korea has been hailed in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Testing was a big part of their strategy, along with an app for contact tracing. The app, somewhat controversial, asked users who tested positive their recent movements. The app was supported by GPS phone tracking, surveillance camera records and card transactions. The app allows for twice-daily check-ins with case officers and alerts officers if the phone leaves the quarantine area. The details collected by the app allowed the Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to issue alerts about where infected people had been before they tested positive for COVID-19. These alerts were in real-time and only included the gender and age category of the individual along with the names and address of the places they had visited.

Singapore

Like Germany, Singapore has taken the privacy-first approach. Their TraceTogether app only collects information when the user has registered and the information is only used to contact those who’ve come in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. When each user registers they are given an anonymous, temporary and time-sensitive ID. The temporary IDs are exchanged with other app users when they are in close contact. The temporary IDs are stored on the users phone and like the decentralised approach can only be passed over to authorities if the user gives permission. If the user tests positive for a COVID-19 the app will contact all those who the person has come in contact with over a 21 day period.

If the user decides they no longer want to use the app all of the contact information is deleted.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has taken an iron fist approach to quarantine. Anyone entering the country is forced to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet that hooks up to an app. The idea being that if the person who entered the country doesn’t quarantine as told the app will inform authorities. Users face a €3,000 fine and a spell in prison. 

During the quarantine period, the app will detect and analyse the environmental communication signals at the users dwelling place, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and geospatial signals in the neighbourhood, and their respective strengths. If a change of such signals is detected, the app will record it. During the quarantine period, if a user is found to have left their dwelling place without permission, the Government will take further actions, such as conducting spot checks, making a prosecution or issuing a wanted warrant.

The detection and analysis of environmental signals do not involve collection of personal data. The app will not read any information on a users smartphone. In order to keep the app running users must turn on the Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, location service functions.  They must also pay attention to their smartphone as the app may at any time request the user to confirm their presence at their dwelling place by scanning the QR code on their wristband. Upon expiry of the quarantine period, the user may uninstall the app on the smartphone, cut off and dispose of the wristband.

They Hong Kong Government has released a video on how to use the app

China

China’s health screening app helps users see if they’ve been in close contact with anyone exposed to COVID-19. The app is integrated with AliPay and WeChat and assigns users a health QR code. The app then uses a colour coding system based on a short survey of potential symptoms. The app assigns the user a colour code of green, orange and red based on the answers to the survey. The colour code appears on the app and data is also sent to the police. The user must have a green code in order to move freely around their city. In fact, access to public transport, public buildings, apartment buildings and general moving around the city is only allowed it the user has a green colour code. 

The app sends a person’s location, city name, and an identifying code number to a server that belongs to authorities. The app shares this data to the server every time someone scans the code. This makes it easier for the authorities to track someone’s movements.

Australia

The Australian government released its COVIDSafe app at the end of March. The app was initially a series of links to official government websites but now it’s a contact tracing app. The app looks for your name or a pseudonym, age range, postcode and phone number when registering. The app uses Bluetooth to record anyone you have come in contact with. This contact sees an exchange of annoymous IDs that are stored encrypted on the phones before being deleted after a 21 day period.

If a user tests positive for COVID-19 and they consent to their data being uploaded it will be held by the Australian government on Amazon Web Services server in Australia. Bluetooth data is also uploaded to inform the government of the contacts that need to be notified. 

Ireland

Ireland has taken a decentralised route to contact tracing opting to make use of Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification API. This is to help ensure data privacy and protection. iOS 13.5 has just been released to the public with the Exposure Notification API. This means that governments and public health agencies from around the world who have chosen a decentralised approach to contact tracing can now deploy their apps to take advantage of the new Apple and Google API. Users get to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications and the system does not collect or use location from their device.

A pilot version of the app was due this month but the HSE have confirmed that there is no official launch date.

Maria Colgan

Digital Marketing Manager

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