Coronavirus: Privacy advocates say HSE planning a ‘super app’

App will see people contacted if data suggests they are in contact with person with Covid-19

Privacy advocates have said the Health Service Executive appears to be planning a "super app" in response to the Covid-19 crisis, which goes beyond the original purpose of the smartphone application being developed to combat the spread of the disease.

The app is modelled on similar efforts undertaken in South Korea and elsewhere, which allow public health authorities directly alert individuals if data gleaned from their smartphones suggests they have been in close contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19.

Antoin O Lachtnain, a spokesman for Digital Rights Ireland, told The Irish Times that according to information given to the group by the HSE, "they are planning to build a 'super-app' which will be much more comprehensive thant the contact tracing app which was originally discussed".

“It will, we are told, also collect information about users health status. We are told that the app is going to be opt-in [require user consent] at launch, but as time goes on we are concerned that further functions are added to it, and that we will eventually end up with an app to monitor covid-19 status that is ‘mandatory but not compulsory for people who deal with the public or work in a shared space,” he said.

Minister for Social Protection once described the controversial Public Services Card project as “mandatory but not compulsory”.

DRI has offered to assist the HSE in the development of the app. In a letter to the group, the HSE’s chief information officer said that the app is “a fully opt-in model” and that the health service is “work(ing) with the explicit objectives of maximising privacy as well as maximising public health value”.

The Government is consulting with the Data Protection Commissioner over the app, and told the group it will publish all associated documents, a Data Protection Impact Assessment, the source code and other documents when it is launced.

It will also delete all identifiable data from the app once the pandemic is over, the HSE said in its letter. “We are very keen to ensure that the potentially lifesaving app has public support and would welcome your positive input once we publish the relevant documentation and the app,” the HSE wrote in its letter.

Mr O Lachtnain said “it is imperative that we all know what we are getting into and consider the privacy implications before we go too far down this road.”

He said the HSE should publish advice it has received from a data protection expert and its impact assessment. “They should publish (this) immediately, so there can be a full and frank debate.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times