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Government says new contact-tracing app timeline now dependent on Apple and Google

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The government says that Ireland’s upcoming contact-tracing app will be based on the model being developed by Apple and Google, and that it will not initially gather location data.

Health Minister Simon Harris says that the timing of the app will now be dependent on the development timeframe by the two tech giants.

Although insisting that privacy will be a “core” design value, he declined to say whether a data privacy impact assessment will be conducted anytime soon.

“The Irish team is actively engaged with Google and Apple as part of our international efforts to develop an effective solution that supports all smart-phone users in Ireland,” wrote Mr Harris in a briefing note for TDs.

“Technical progress will be largely dependent upon the availability of the API being developed by Apple and Google. Our team is working very closely with them to align timescales and to ensure maximised interoperability.”

Mr Harris also confirmed that the app would be based on a ‘decentralised’ model, meaning that data collected between phones would not be automatically uploaded to government computers or servers.

“In terms of the design architecture, we were initially pursuing a ‘hybrid model’, but following discussions with other countries and GDPR experts, have now opted to progress development on the basis of a more ‘de-centralised’ or ‘distributed model’,” he wrote.

“This means that the matching of contact traces occurs on each individual’s mobile phone and is not held centrally by the health services. Use of the app will be voluntary and data that is provided to the health services will be provided on the basis of consent and user preferences.”

However, he also admitted that a “significant proportion of the population are needed to download and use the app for it to make a difference” to contact tracing and for understanding the spread of Covid-19.

“As part of the preparations, a national communications campaign is being developed which will make it as easy as possible for people across Ireland to start using the app,” he wrote.

Most countries with contact-tracing apps have failed to achieve substantial takeup among their populations. Singapore’s penetration is around a fifth of its population, despite its app being available longest. Australia’s takeup is just over 10pc in its first week.

Interoperability with the upcoming NHS app will also be important, he said.

“The Irish team are working closely with EU counterparts and with the NHS to support the achievement of interoperability – recognising that no one country alone can resolve that.”

The government will not initially look for location data from the app, but may request it from citizens at later stages.

“It is important to be clear that location data from the app is not of interest to the contact tracing services or the HSE,” Mr Harris wrote.

“Furthermore, it is important to note that the identity of the index case is never disclosed via the app and the privacy of all app users is protected at all times. In that context, exact location data will not be captured by the app.

“However, location data will be an essential input into future policy and planning activities without compromising privacy, such as by utilising the symptom tracker capabilities on the app with the voluntarily supplier small statistical area location information. This would enable public health experts to map and monitor symptoms in real-time at national level.

"Consequently, the Department of Health is working with the CSO and with other relevant agencies to utilise data volunteered by citizens accordingly. To re-emphasise, the purpose will be to deliver symptomatic intelligence that is valuable for the management and protection of public health in a manner that completely protects the privacy of all app users.”

Online Editors