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Bluetooth functionality to be added to contact tracing app

Tuesday, 19 May 2020  
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Return to home page editor Rebecca McBeth


Bluetooth technology that detects close contacts of a user will be added to the new national contact tracing app next month, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield says.


The Ministry of Health has released the NZ COVID Tracer app, which has been developed for the Ministry of Health by Kiwi company Rush Digital and uses the Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform.


Kiwis who download the app will create a “digital diary” of the places they visit by scanning QR codes displayed at the entrances to business premises, other organisations and public buildings.


As of May 27, the app had more than 420,000 downloads.


Bloomfield told Radio NZ on May 20 that Bluetooth technology, that will enable a phone to detect another device in close proximity and “exchange a secret code”, will likely be released next month.


“That’s the next functionality and we are well down the track of working that up,” he told Radio NZ this morning.


“People will have the option to add that functionality, it doesn’t happen automatically,”


The MoH is adapting Singapore’s TraceTogether Bluetooth technology, which is what Australia’s new app COVIDSafe is based on.


Australia released its app nearly a month ago, however The Guardian reports that while nearly 6 million Australians have downloaded it, no states have yet reported using the data for contact tracing.


There are a number of contact tracing apps already available in the market, however Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health developed its own app because it, “wanted to give greater certainty about the use of the data that’s collected”.


Users of the NZ COVID Tracer app can register their contact information to make sure the National Close Contact Service can get in touch if they need to.


Any information recorded within the app will be stored securely on the users phone, deleted automatically after 31 days and only used for contact tracing.


People will retain control over their location information and can choose to release it to the Ministry or a public health unit if asked.


This level of security has been welcomed by the Privacy Commissioner John Edwards who says the Ministry’s app is a “privacy-friendly solution” which New Zealanders should feel secure in downloading and using.


The Ministry consulted his office during the development of the app and conducted a privacy impact assessment.


Any information an app user chooses to share for contact tracing is encrypted before it is sent to the Ministry via the AWS cloud services platform.


When asked about personal data being stored offshore during today’s press conference, Bloomfield said AWS is part of a NZ, All of Government cloud services agreement that was formed in 2017.


“I’m very confident in confidentiality and privacy arrangements around that,” he said.

Bloomfield said that while strong uptake of the NZ COVID Tracer app would be helpful, it is not “mission critical”.


“The key is to help people remember where they have been,” he said.


He hopes other app developers will align to use the new national QR codes being created for businesses.


A press release from the Ministry of Health says the NZ COVID Tracer app will be updated over time as new features are developed. The next release is in early June and will enable the app to notify someone if they have been at the same location at the same time as someone who has Covid-19.


A dataset of times and locations will be transmitted to all devices that have NZ COVID Tracer installed. The app will compare this dataset with the locations stored in a person’s digital diary and let them know if there is a match.


This release will also allow users to send their digital diary directly to the National Close Contact Service.


There were reports during the day of its release of Android smartphone users in particular having difficulty downloading the new app.


Bloomfield said at a press conference on May 20 that he was aware of “a few wrinkles”, which would be “ironed out” over time and the first new release to fix some bugs would be that afternoon.


Head of the department of computer science at Auckland University of Technology Dave Parry says, “people are used to very easy to use apps and for something designed to be used by the whole population this feels like a government app. Not impossible to use but not delightful either”.


“I would strongly support releasing the source code for this app so that the security community can test it and examine it, this is a much more reliable way of protecting data than “security by obscurity”, Parry says.


If you would like to provide feedback on this news story, please contact the editor Rebecca McBeth.


Read more news:

Contact tracing app weeks away

National Contact Tracing Solution gets development funding

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