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Ireland's contact-tracing app may struggle - and not just on privacy

Adrian Weckler


Ireland is developing a contact-tracing app

Ireland is developing a contact-tracing app

Ireland is developing a contact-tracing app

Will you download Ireland's contact-tracing app when it launches? Are you afraid it might sap your battery life? Are you disqualified by your age? Do you fear it's being used as a trojan horse for State surveillance? Or are you just not really bothered?

Here are the main problems for Ireland's contact-tracing app.

1. It may not work with old smartphones. The technology that Ireland's app is based on is being devised to work with newer phones. In Android's case, that means Android 6 or above. According to Statcounter, 10pc of Ireland's Android phones are using older systems than that.

Similarly, if you have an iPhone 6, iPhone 5 (or 5C or 5S) or anything else older than an iPhone 7, it may not work. You can't really afford to disregard 10pc of the phone-owning population at a stroke, especially if that 10pc might disproportionately include older people who change their smartphones less frequently.

2. It can't initially be downloaded by under-16s. The HSE says that you have to be 16 to download this app, because of 'digital consent'. Leave aside that privacy experts say this is a misreading of current law; it knocks out a big chunk of the smartphone-using market. It means we have no idea if the tens of thousands of teens visiting their grandparents, going into shops or attending school are passing the virus on.

3. Bluetooth sometimes just doesn't work for this kind of thing. Trinity College Dublin researchers Professor Douglas Leith and Dr Stephen Farrell recently tested phones' Bluetooth capability for contact-tracing apps. They took measurements in several locations in Dublin - in a supermarket, on a train carriage, sitting at a meeting table and walking outdoors on a city street. They found problems with accurately measuring social distancing using Bluetooth.

"When sitting around a meeting table with phones in their pockets we measured the signal strength to be very low even for people sitting next to one another," said Leith, who added that people would need to place their phones on the table instead.

4. There are still some privacy fears. It is still possible that the combination of this app, together with CCTV cameras or other security tools, might yet identify people. The problem is that this kind of technology is just too useful to too many agencies and companies. It doesn't take a big leap of the imagination to see pundits calling for 'society to be kept safe' by an adoption of similar technology in future. To be fair, as with any issue, privacy fears can be overstated just as easily as they can be underrated.

Will this app know more about us than we already give up on Google, Facebook, Instagram and thousands of 'cookies'? Will it know where you live, what you buy, who your friends are and what political affiliations you have, like many of our everyday digital services?

Almost certainly not. Compared to the social media most of us (and it really is most of us) use, this is a low threat in its current guise.

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5. It might become 'mandatory but not compulsory'. While this is being introduced as a voluntary download, it may become effectively compulsory in workplaces and schools. There is a big interpretive space between something being legally required and 'unofficially' mandatory.


Unlimited has its limits

Can an "unlimited" mobile service be unlimited when its legal terms and conditions say it may, in fact, be limited or stopped for "excessive" use?

I've never thought so. For years, I pointed this out about Three's 'All You Can Eat' service (60GB with a 'fair use' cutoff clause). Last year, I highlighted that Eir's 'No Limits' mobile data package actually has an 80GB-plus-fair-use-cutoff condition, too. And Virgin Mobile 'Unlimited' (80GB with a similar 'fair use' cutoff condition).

Now it's Vodafone that is introducing an "unlimited" mobile data service that is limited in its legal terms and conditions by a warning if you use too much data, you'll go over your unlimited allowance. This time, instead of 'fair use', it uses the word "excessive". To be fair, Vodafone's overall move is hugely positive. It will be a fantastic step up for many thousands of people. It also lifts the whole Irish telecoms market - all three main operators now have very high-data packages for the ordinary business user and consumer.

And yet, it would be dishonest of those of us who represent the interests of readers not to point out the underside. Vodafone, like other operators, cannot resist the term "unlimited" in its advertising, even when its legal terms and conditions tell a different story. Like the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI), it argues that "for most people", it will be unlimited. This might seem like a ludicrous abuse of the English language, but apparently the ASAI allows operators to do it.

It is not possible for Vodafone, or any mobile operator, to not include terms and conditions giving them the right to take action if a customer is simply using way too much data for the local area to handle. This is basic network management.

But is there any need to mislabel it as "unlimited"?

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