Lack of transparency will ‘damage uptake’ of contact tracing app

HSE to launch pilot version of app but concerns grow over personal data storage

A Swiss app developed for proximity tracing: In Ireland a contract-tracing app will reportedly gather the phone number, age, gender and symptoms of people who believe they have the virus, and some location data. Photograph: EPA/Laurent Gillieron

A Swiss app developed for proximity tracing: In Ireland a contract-tracing app will reportedly gather the phone number, age, gender and symptoms of people who believe they have the virus, and some location data. Photograph: EPA/Laurent Gillieron

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Concerns are mounting that a lack of transparency over the State’s proposed contact tracing app will “damage the uptake of the app and undermine its effectiveness”.

The HSE said on Sunday that it hopes to launch a “pilot” version of the app next month, but TJ McIntyre, chair of privacy advocate Digital Rights Ireland (DRI), said the HSE has “not provided any detailed information about what the app is supposed to do or how it is supposed to do it”.

In addition to using smartphones to speed up the contact tracing process, the app will reportedly gather the phone number, age, gender and symptoms of people who believe they have the virus, and some location data. There are concerns that people’s data may be stored centrally on servers, rather than remaining on people’s phones.

DRI has asked that the source code and a Data Protection Impact Assessment be shared before the app goes live, but the HSE has said it only intends to do so after launch. James Lawless, Fianna Fáil spokesman on science and technology, said source code should be shared before launch “as a matter of course” so it can be reviewed for faults.

“It’s too late if we find out there is a vulnerability afterwards and everyone has had it on their phones for a few weeks,” he said. He said the lack of information being published was “concerning” and that there were “no answers to basic questions”.

Reassurances

“It doesn’t inspire confidence,” he said. Mr Lawless said widespread adoption of the app was key to its effectiveness. “That won’t happen without very strong reassurances.”

The HSE initially indicated the app would be launched early this month, but has not elaborated on the reasons for its delay. Last week, the Netherlands was forced to shelve its contact tracing app, which shares some features with the Irish version, due to privacy concerns. The Attorney General has reviewed the app, HSE chief executive Paul Reid confirmed on Sunday. That is thought to have taken place earlier this month. Sources said some changes had been requested afterwards.

The successful rollout of the app, which the HSE says is undergoing “final security and product testing” is a “key element of the next phase of the Irish national public health response”, a HSE spokesman said.

In correspondence with Digital Rights Ireland last week, the HSE’s interim chief information officer Fred Thompson said it had not published information on the project “as we are still developing the application and associated documentation”.

“I can assure you that we take our obligations seriously and will not be going live with an app without meeting our legal obligations,” Mr Thompson wrote.

‘Clear instructions’

The HSE spokesman said it is “actively engaged with discussions at EU Commission level which are informing the development of the app”.

“The implementation timeline will be determined by the technical progress and the results from the security and product testing that is underway. When it is ready the Department of Health and the HSE will formally launch the app with clear instructions on how to download and use it.”

Apple and Google are working on a joint contact tracing platform that would work on most smartphones, and could work in conjunction with apps developed by health authorities. The HSE has said it has been in contact with both companies and is working with them.

The HSE is in informal communication with the Data Protection Commissioner, which may progress to a formal consultation depending on the final design of the app.

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