The fact that in the region of 1m smartphone users have already signed up for the HSE’s Covid-19 Tracing apps is evidence of three major characteristics of most people in Ireland in aiding the fight against the virus — solidarity with our fellow citizens -particularly the elderly and vulnerable-; respect for the work of frontline health care workers; and a leap of faith in technology, in the hope that it will be effective and will not breach data protection.
Privacy concerns have been raised over handing so much information to tech giants like Google and Apple when it emerged that location settings must be enabled on Android phones for it to work. We live in an age where visibility on personal data captured and stored by private companies is far from transparent, or recognisable.
These concerns are more than justified. On the plus side, it is a voluntary, opt-in service that identifies when people become close contacts through the Bluetooth connection in their phone. Almost all data sent through the app requires user consent, and these settings can be changed at any time.
There is no centralised data, as the information is held on the user’s phone and data is wiped after 14 days — the incubation period for Covid-19.
The app has the potential to reduce the time that people are active in the community with infection, which should have a significant impact on the transmission of the disease.
As acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn put it: “This is one more example of the solidarity and collective spirit that has characterised the Irish public’s response to Covid-19 to date.”
The HSE says the app can reduce the time to trace a close contact from days to hours.
According to Dr Glynn, the more people who download and use it, the more effective it will be. It is estimated that around 3.5m people have smartphones capable of running the app, but more than 60% of the population must download and use it for it to be fully effective, although every download helps and Irish people are signing up in droves to do their bit. Indeed, with some notable and highly publicised exceptions, Irish people have behaved very responsibly in responding to Covid-19, and this is further evidence of that.
In a remarkable display of social solidarity, the public are placing faith in the organs of the State to protect their privacy as well as their health. There is now a duty on Taoiseach Micheál Martin and his Government to repay that trust by, in the first instance, recognising the
data privacy implications associated with the app.
In a world of GDPR and data concerns, privacy has to be protected and be seen to be protected for future generations as much as our own. It is vital that there is full and ongoing transparency in its operation, particularly when companies like Google and Apple already dominate our lives to such a huge extent.
In the longer term, when the coronavirus finally leaves our shores or we have an effective vaccine against it, it will also be time for whatever government is in place to repay that public faith and solidarity by ensuring that our health services will be able to face future challenges.
The time to start work on that is now.