New contact tracing app ‘less invasive than Alexa’

As privacy concerns grow over contact-tracing technology, a new monitoring system funded under the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) initiative will launch on 10 July that allows users with strong Coronavirus symptoms to take full ownership of their personal data while participating in national track and trace schemes.

The EOSC Secretariat - an initiative that has approved €1.23 million in emergency funding for 32 projects to specifically tackle the COVID-19 pandemic - is supporting the new app that will improve contact tracing while simultaneously maintaining privacy.

Concerns that digital tracing systems for COVID-19 could become ‘back doors’ to mass surveillance have already mounted, with academics from 26 countries recently issuing a warning that contact tracing apps could hamper trust.

Confirming you have been infected requires personal data to be submitted, recorded, exchanged and stored, with the UK government’s NHSX-developed app previously indicating that it may be stored and used for future research purposes.

But a small research team has developed an alternative which invites users to participate via an ‘opt-in’ facility, which can be removed or deleted at any time, and will be available to download on Android and Apple.

Developed by brothers Paul and Patrick Byrnes, the goal of the project is build up a picture of local infection clusters so that targeted regions can be restricted rather than having a blanket ban.

This new app - called Tracing Ireland’s Population (TIP) - is different to existing contact-tracing apps, as it gives users ownership of their data and hosts all information in encrypted form.

Co-creator Paul Byrnes said: “Alexa will invade your privacy more than our app does – like many contact-tracing systems hoping to end blanket lockdowns by providing an accurate, targeted picture of infections, our new facility looks set to enable smaller, localised restrictions.

“The success of any contact-tracing app depends on whether people will engage with it, and if they don’t trust it, they won’t use it – it’s that simple, once the pandemic is over, all data will be erased.”

While most platforms exchange data with nearby strangers via Bluetooth and store it remotely, the TIP app acts more like a digital version of a manual tracer.

“With no use of Bluetooth or GPS tagging, our app instead allows someone who shows strong symptoms of COVID-19 to submit their phone’s IP address which is stored in an encrypted form,” explained Byrnes.

“The user then submits the phone numbers of anyone they have been in contact with, who then receive a push notification and details of how to arrange an appointment for testing – they can choose to engage with it or ignore it.”

He continued: “No person who uses our app is identifiable: we take 25 data points, and only three of which are personal - the IP address, the phone number and the county.”

A condition for securing funding from the EOSC initiative was to have an independent Data Protection Impact Assessment.

“We have been assessed by an independent body from the EU Commission and once this has been approved we will receive the green light for rolling out the app,” added Byrnes.

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