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Contact-tracing app given boost by delivery of tech from Apple and Google

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Apple and Google say they have added additional encryption to the ‘metadata’ coming from the contact-tracing phones, to make it even harder to identify individuals. (stock photo)

Apple and Google say they have added additional encryption to the ‘metadata’ coming from the contact-tracing phones, to make it even harder to identify individuals. (stock photo)

PA Archive/PA Images

Apple and Google say they have added additional encryption to the ‘metadata’ coming from the contact-tracing phones, to make it even harder to identify individuals. (stock photo)

Apple and Google have delivered their contact-tracing technology to health authorities in 22 countries today, saying that they have provided the system to those who “have requested access”.

A spokeswoman for the HSE declined to say whether Ireland has yet requested access to the interface. However, she said that the Irish app, which is based on the Apple-Google technology, will not be available to the public by the end of May. Instead, it is “on track” for the “completion” of its development at that time, with a “large scale field test” to follow before release.

She said that the Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) For the app “will be made available in parallel with the field test and this will be followed by full launch of the app, subject to the necessary approvals from NPHET, HSE and Government”.

She did not say when the app expected to launch.

“The app will be available when it is fully operational and when all approvals are in place from the relevant authorities, as part of the implementation of the Covid-19 Roadmap for Recovery,” the spokeswoman said.

“The team are currently working to complete the app development and testing programme, assess the results of the supporting research projects and secure approvals from the relevant authorities such as the Data Protection Commissioner, NPHET and wider Government,” she said.

The app is being developed by Waterford-based Nearform.

The technology, being released in the form of an application programming interface (‘API’), allows countries’ own developed apps to work more smoothly with iPhones and Android smartphones, and between the two operating systems.

It enables contact-tracing apps to work using Bluetooth connections to log 14 days’ worth of contact with other phones that also use the same app. If someone tests positive for Covid-19, they can consent to uploading their anonymous connection list to a health authority’s system, which can then automatically notify the phones that were in proximity through the app.

Users will be able to consent or withdraw consent at any time at multiple stages of the process. The system will not use location data. The HSE has not yet said whether the Irish app will ask for phone numbers.

Apple and Google say that they will not allow targeted advertising or location services to be used through their technology for a contact-tracing app.

They are also limiting allowance to one app per country, except in the case of countries with regional or state governance levels, to try to maximise the chance of an app getting mass adoption.

Apple and Google say they have added additional encryption to the ‘metadata’ coming from the contact-tracing phones, to make it even harder to identify individuals.

However, they admitted that there maybe a minor impact in battery life from the modifications.

Separately, the UK’s contact-tracing app has been criticised for security flaws that could expose user details.

The British version is currently being trialled in the Isle Of Wight.

Experts say that take up of over 50pc is needed for the app to make a substantial difference in contact-tracing. However, Irish government figures have suggested that 25pc take up would still improve the national effort at slowing the spread of

Earlier this month, Health Minister Simon Harris said: “this will only work if the people of Ireland download it. Otherwise it won’t make a blind bit of difference.”

Apple and Google have previously warned that different contact-tracing app systems in countries such as Ireland and the UK may lead to functionality problems.

Company representatives said earlier this month that if every country deploys their own app based on different underlying technology, it will make it difficult for ‘interoperability’ when roaming.

Ireland and the UK are currently adopting different contact-tracing app systems, with Ireland basing its ‘decentralised’ approach on technology provided by Apple and Google.

The UK, by contrast, says that it will store data centrally.

Apple and Google said that they are working “in the long term” for smartphones to be able to notify people about possible exposure to Covid-19 without having to download a standalone contact-tracing app.

The two giants say they will add the capability into their operating systems in a later phase, with the companies concentrating first on providing underlying technology that national health authorities might use in their own contact-tracing apps.

It means that people might get alerts automatically as long as they agree to turn on the feature on their phones.

Online Editors