Use Covid tracker app if you wish, but be sure to wear a face covering
There is scant evidence that apps are effective, but mounting evidence masks are
The HSE’s coronavirus tracking app, Covid Tracker, is finally available for download from Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
Should you use it? Perhaps. Such an app, which aims to retrospectively alert users who have been within 2m of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, could be a useful tool in the ongoing attempt to open up the country again, while curtailing future Covid-19 outbreaks.
But that’s the ideal. The reality is likely to be much different, due to the probable limitations of Bluetooth technology, the potentially limited audience of app users and inflated expectations of technology as a coronavirus-fighting tool.
Internationally, such apps operate in an evidence-free zone. None has been seen to make a significant contribution to controlling the virus. Questions remain on whether tracker apps will truly help or simply be a moderate, costly privacy intrusion with little justification.
That doesn’t mean an attempt shouldn’t be made to get a good, privacy-respecting app out to the public and encourage the broad use required for it to be effective. This app is a start, but still needs some work. Many limitations do not seem to have been considered or addressed.
On the positive side, much was done in past months to address privacy concerns flagged for such apps, which was developed by Irish company Nearform. Initial secrecy about the Irish app evolved into greater transparency and better privacy design (and probably accounted for the long delay in its release).
No, it isn’t ideal to have these two tech giants in this dominant international role, but it appears to be the best solution at the moment
Internationally, many apps were controversially coded to send users’ sensitive health and location-tracking information to governments, which could then contact potentially infected individuals for testing and contact tracing. This approach was intended for the Irish app, too.
But Ireland eventually followed other countries in switching to a joint Apple/Google protocol, which enables phones to directly and anonymously alert other people if they have been in the vicinity of an infected person. And no, it isn’t ideal to have these two tech giants in this dominant international role, but it appears to be the best and most effective anonymising communication solution at the moment.
Commendably, the HSE has uploaded the app’s code to a public code site, GitHub, where anybody can examine it. The app comes with easy-to-understand explanations on how it works and how it uses data, and makes it simple to opt out at any time. There are sunset clauses that require some kinds of information to be destroyed after a set period. These are all good things.
Issues that remain include the app’s opt-in for providing symptom details, or county-based information or personal phone numbers to the HSE. Such location and health-tracking information goes beyond EU data protection guidance advising that Covid-19 apps pursue only the single purpose of contact tracing, notes the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Digital Rights Ireland has questioned whether the consent mechanism fully complies with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.
The most vulnerable age cohort for coronavirus is the least likely to own smartphones
But the biggest app caveat is the unproven efficacy of all Covid-19 apps, and the apparent anticipation of the general public that it can solve virus management.
Little evidence exists to show any nation’s app is helping in this way. First off, it’s generally accepted that at least 50 per cent of a nation’s population needs to be using such apps for them to be useful. Almost no country has reached that level.
There’s also a tech barrier, both regarding devices – which need to be more recent models able to run newer versions of the iPhone and Android operating systems – and audience. The most vulnerable age cohort for coronavirus is the least likely to own smartphones. In a 2018 report, Age Action noted that Eurostat 2018 statistics indicated 55 per cent of Irish 65-74-year-olds had never even used the internet.
TCD researchers have found that Bluetooth technology isn’t always accurate in determining when another device is nearby. A person with a phone tucked into a backpack on the floor of a bus stalled in traffic may appear to be in the vicinity of someone outside on the pavement or in a nearby car. Yet the phone may not register as being near another passenger a metre away who has the virus.
Dr Stephen Farrell, research fellow at the school of computer science and statistics at Trinity College Dublin, has noted, “We have no clear evidence before us that the app accurately detects close contacts to Covid-19. In the alternative, our independent research shows that app signalling accuracy varies substantially depending on user environments.”
A major worry is that users will see the app as a virus prophylactic and abandon proven virus hygiene measures. No notifications, no worries.
Even Goldman Sachs says face coverings would be a forceful boost in resuming economic activity and protecting GDP
The irony is two less intrusive and easy to utilise traditional measures – wearing a face covering and maintaining social distancing – are demonstrably effective in containing virus spread, yet – as anyone going out can see – are not widely observed by people.
Yet mounting studies indicate widespread use of face coverings could dramatically lower infections and permit a faster return to more activities. Even Goldman Sachs says face coverings would be a forceful boost in resuming economic activity and protecting GDP.
So, use the app as one tool, if you wish. But for the most meaningful anti-virus action, please wear a face covering.