Have you downloaded the Covid-19 tracker app yet, or have you encouraged your employees, patients/customers or friends and family to do so? In principle, it’s a good idea, but bearing in mind serious concerns that have come to light in terms of how personal information is used by the likes of Facebook, the idea raised a few red-flags among some people, including Trinity College Dublin (TCD) researchers.
Acting Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health Dr Ronan Glynn has gushingly endorsed the Covid Tracker, describing it last month as “an important tool to support our contact tracing systems”. According to the Department, the app will “alert you if you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, advise you on what to do to protect yourself and others [and] alert other app users that you were in close contact with, if you test positive for Covid-19”. That’s all well and good. Or is it?
Dr Glynn may want to look away now. On 23 July, researchers from Trinity College Dublin raised some serious concerns over the Google Play component of the Covid-19 tracker app, stating that “user privacy is not protected adequately in Covid-19 tracking apps, including the Irish Covid Tracker app”.
The researchers wrote a report that examined the data transmitted to back-end servers by contact tracing apps deployed by health authorities in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Poland, Latvia and Ireland, with a view to evaluating user privacy.
In short, the report (available at http://www.scss.tcd.ie/Doug.Leith/pubs/contact_tracing_app_traffic.pdf) revealed that “Google Play Services contacts Google servers roughly every 10-20 minutes, allowing fine-grained location tracking via IP address. In addition, Google Play also shares the phone IMEI [International Mobile Equipment Identity], hardware serial number, SIM serial number, handset phone number and user email address with Google, together with fine-grained data on the apps running on the phone”. The full report makes for rather unsettling reading for those who value the privacy of their personal data.
Dr Doug Leith, Chair of Computer Systems at TCD, has informed the HSE of his concerns and states that this level of “intrusiveness… seems incompatible with a recommendation for population-wide usage”.
Irish users in particular are receiving special attention from the app’s designers. “We found that the Irish HSE app sets a type of ‘supercookie’ that allows connections made by the same phone to be linked together over time. None of the other European apps do this and we recommend it be removed,” stated Dr Leith.
Perhaps you care about your personal data being collected in such an intrusive way; perhaps you’re fine with it. As the HSE has obviously invested a lot of resources into getting this app up and running and promoting it, we should at least be keeping a close eye on how they deal with, or don’t deal with, the researchers’ concerns.
Letter to the Editor Re Fintan Moore’s column, ‘Experts — What do they know?’, July issue, Irish Pharmacist Dear Editor, Despite what Fintan Moore writes, many employee pharmacists do prefer and need a dedicated lunch break. You need that break to physically and mentally recharge for the afternoon ahead. Let him please show us the evidence base against the importance of breaks, then employers across all fields of business can forgo dedicated breaks for their staff. I wonder how that impacts on work-related performance. Nice for business owners like himself to keep the pharmacy open and not lose potential personal profit. Not so pleasant for the employees. We spend a large amount of our lives working. The quality of life within that environment is very important. Pharmacists may not want to ‘grab’ something on the go in order to get more money. Pharmacy employees are not all driven primarily by money. Quality of life and other factors are important. But of course, if you are in business with a primary goal of generating profit, then we can better understand the perspective of the author. Such a forcefully-written piece. Does anyone else have the courage to disagree with him publicly? Yours sincerely, Anna Davis, Pharmacist