Stephen McNeice
Stephen McNeice

15.31 7 Jul 2020


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After a number of delays, COVID Tracker - the HSE's COVID-19 contact tracing app - became available to the public on Monday night.

Downloaded around 500,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon, the app's primary function is to let users know when they've been in close contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19.

Ireland follows a number of other countries in Europe and around the world who've introduced similar contact tracing apps in recent weeks and months.

So, how does it work exactly?

Speaking on Newstalk Breafkast, Newstalk's tech correspondent Jess Kelly explained that the app is free to download on both iOS and Android.

Here's what you need to know about the HSE's new contact tracing app

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She said that the goal is for as many people as possible to to use the app.

In order for it to work, users need to enable Bluetooth and keeps their Bluetooth on all the time.

If someone you were in close proximity for a certain period of time later tests positive for COVID-19, then you will receive a notification informing you of that.

You will not be told who the person is, and will be asked to monitor yourself for any symptoms.

Jess explained: "Engineers from Google and Apple who've worked on the construction of this technology say it's been designed to be as minimally invasive on your battery.

"For this to be effective, you need to keep your Bluetooth on the entire time."

The app is opt-in - meaning you need to consent to use it - and officials have said it will be more effective the more people use it.

While the app will prompt you to give your mobile number, that is entirely optional - with the HSE says giving your phone number will make it easier for a contact tracing team to contact you if they need to (the app is not replacing the existing contact tracing systems).

In terms of compatibility, iPhone users will have to have at least iOS version 13.5 for the app to work - meaning the app will not work with some older iPhones, while others may need to update their phones firmware.

You also have to be at least 16 years of age to use the app.

Alongside the contact tracing functions, the app also provides updates on the latest coronavirus situation in Ireland.

It also allows users to log whether they have any symptoms of the virus.

Privacy

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has insisted privacy is "right at the heart" of COVID Tracker's design.

He said: “What some governments have done is they have created a central database and your phone feeds information into a central database.

“This works the other way around. The information is kept on each individual phone.”

Liam Herrick - Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties - is among those who've raised concerns about the new app.

He said: "A lot of positive work has gone in here to meet some of the requirements around transparency, and also to try to insert that data would be deleted.

"I think the real challenge with this app is all of the questions around data protection and proportionality all centre on whether this will actually work and if it will deliver a benefit.

"In Ireland, as has been the case in other countries, the evidence base that the Bluetooth technology is going to deliver the results that are promised is weak.

"Bluetooth technology is essentially created to allow you to listen to your radio or music without wires... it's now trying to use it for a completely different purpose."

Mr Herrick also raised concerns about the app tracking people's symptoms, saying his organisation believes it is an unnecessary collection of personal data.

He stressed that privacy concerns can be improved on, but the 'big question' remains around the app's overall effectiveness.

Main image: The COVID Tracker app. Photo: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

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