COVID-19: What are the potential problems with the contact tracing apps?

  • The UK and Republic of Ireland are differing in their approaches to contact-tracing phone apps, leaving confusion surrounding cross-border operations with Northern Ireland.

    There are two main models that these apps can use; a decentralised model that ensures user details are stored on their own handset or device, or the centralised one which means their data is externally stored on a central server.

    The Republic of Ireland is opting for contact-matching via a person’s device, which is what most countries worldwide seem to be choosing.

    This system is being collaboratively ran by Apple and Google, who will run the software on almost all of the world's smartphones.

    The UK is understood to be working towards one which is tracked via a central server - which it believes will offer more insight into the disease.

    Irish health minister Simon Harris said the Republic wants the most effective app in tracking contact between those displaying COVID-19 symptoms but was also "ensuring continuing alignment with the EU guidance" on data protection.

    Put basically, the contact tracing apps will use Bluetooth to trace other contacts within certain limits and the phone will anonymously record which other devices have been in close proximity.

    These contacts will be stored in the background of the device and if any of these people display COVID-19 symptoms the phone will send an alert to those that have been in close proximity to them along with guidance and self-isolation advice.

    The UK’s central server option has caused some privacy experts to pose questions about who has access to that data and query the potential risk of a cyber-attack.

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    Jo O'Reilly, deputy editor and digital privacy advocate at software firm ProPrivacy is one such expert.

    She said that “unfortunately in the UK, the government has opted for the less secure model” and pointed out that a possible cyber-attack “could be devastating given the sensitivity of this data.”

    She added: “The hope is that they might re-think this before the app is rolled out nationwide, and switch to a decentralised model, meaning that data will not be centrally stored. This will almost definitely encourage more people to use it, and in turn, make it more effective.”

    The app essentially needs at least 60% of a country’s population to download it for it to be effective, as reported recently by Sky News, but even then it is not guaranteed to be fully accurate.

    More than 300 academics have warned against using smartphone GPS data, as it lacks "sufficient accuracy" to determine whether people came close enough to each other to actually transmit the virus.

    Additionally, a majority of the proposed apps are using Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI) as a proxy to measure distance between the phone’s Bluetooth transmitters and receivers, but this is “notoriously inaccurate” according to Professor Alan Woodward, computer scientist at the University of Surrey.

    When asked about what she thinks will happen in regards to Northern Ireland and its usage of contact tracing apps, Jo O’Reilly concluded: “Honestly I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess at the moment. As it stands they will be eligible for the UK app but I’ve not really seen enough about how they will deal with the open border situation.”

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    The UK’s app trials began this week on the Isle of Wight, with the entire island’s population being urged to download the app from today onwards.

    It is expected to roll out nationwide in the next few weeks, including within Northern Ireland.

    Michael Veale, an expert at University College London working on contact-tracing technology told British newspaper The Telegraph that it will “not be possible” to make the UK’s version of the app compatible with its Irish counterpart, and so problems are still to be expected for those working across the Irish border.

    Irish health minister Simon Harris said: “The specific challenge of North-South travel in Ireland and across the Irish Sea has been highlighted in EU meetings convened to discuss eHealth and the app.”

    RELATED: UK and Ireland disagree on Coronavirus contact tracing app

    Sources: BBC News, Sky News, The Telegraph, The Irish Times

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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