Covid-19 smartphone tracking app 'must be transparent', says privacy expert

The Government must officially confirm what format its Covid-19 smartphone tracking application is set to take in order to ensure “the fundamental issues of transparency and engagement” and maximise public uptake, according to one of Ireland’s foremost privacy experts.
Covid-19 smartphone tracking app 'must be transparent', says privacy expert

The Government must officially confirm what format its Covid-19 smartphone tracking application is set to take in order to ensure “the fundamental issues of transparency and engagement” and maximise public uptake, according to one of Ireland’s foremost privacy experts.

“While I welcome the fact that they appear to have changed to a decentralised approach, in the absence of formal confirmation of what the app is and how it’ll work we aren’t really a whole lot further along,” Daragh O’Brien, director of Wexford-based data consultancy Castlebridge, said.

He was referring to the fact that the HSE’s app, which is now several weeks overdue having being first announced at end March, will switch from its initial approach which would have involved maintaining citizens’ data - including phone numbers and health status - in a Government databank to one which would see effective contact tracing managed directly from smartphones.

That change of tack, which would see the HSE’s app running in alignment with the favoured approach of tech giants Apple and Google (who have engaged in a rare collaboration in an attempt to create a tracing standard for their smartphones) has not been officially confirmed, though multiple independent sources have insisted that such a move is inevitable.

Until now the HSE had declined to publish either the application’s source code or its GDPR-mandated data protection impact assessment (DPIA).

Publishing the code is seen as best practice internationally in order to ensure public oversight of how a citizen’s data will be used by such an application.

“This thing cannot work unless it’s transparent,” Mr O’Brien, who had described the initial scope of the application as representing “a potential car crash”, said.

“What we need is to have Tony Holohan (the chief medical officer) hold a press conference with a slideshow saying ‘this is the app, and this is what it will do’. And we urgently need the DPIA to be released.”

Official details as to how the HSE’s app - known as CovidTracker Ireland - will work in practice are few on the ground.

The executive said earlier this month that the application would “help the health service with its efforts in contact tracing for people who are confirmed cases” while at the same time “maximising privacy”, with “privacy-by-design a core principle” of the project.

- Read full analysis on this story in tomorrow's Irish Examiner print edition

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