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HOME  > Past issues  > 2020 June 17 - 23  > Expert: Government’s new coronavirus contact-tracing app arouses privacy concerns
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2020 June 17 - 23 [SOCIAL ISSUES]

Expert: Government’s new coronavirus contact-tracing app arouses privacy concerns

June 18, 2020

The government plans to release this week a smartphone application which will send an alert notification to users when they are found to have had close contact with COVID-19 positives.

The application uses the Bluetooth short-range wireless contact technology to detect when two users of a smartphone with this app installed are within one meter distance for 15 minutes and this information will be stored in each of the two devices. When an app user is tested positive for the new coronavirus, the user will report this through the app and then the app will send an alert to other users who have a record of contact with the coronavirus positive in question during the previous two weeks.

Smartphone owners can download and use the application on a voluntary basis. Due to privacy considerations, the application does not keep personal information such as GPS data and users’ phone numbers. The record of contacts will be invalidated in 14 days.

Takano Yoshifumi, an expert in information technology, in an Akahata interview pointed out that the new app has aroused privacy concerns as it will be operated in combination with the Health Ministry’s Health Center Real-time information-sharing System on COVID-19 (HER-SYS).

HER-SYS is designed to help public health centers, municipal governments, and medical institutions to share information of COVID-19 positives. When a COVID-19 positive is registered by a public health center on HER-SYS, the person will be given a code number.

Takano said that the code number is sensitive information as it is tied to the personal information of each corresponding COVID-19 positive on the HER-SYS database.

HER-SYS in term of its use does not make public its handling of personal information which includes what information it collects, how it manages collected data, and how or if it provides its data to third parties. These points are not explained in the specifications of the new app. Takano noted that given that HER-SYS is not only used for data management but also for epidemiological studies. personal information of registered persons will be shared with third party organizations without their consent, which is a serious privacy concern.

Takano said that it is highly questionable whether the contact tracing app will be effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

According to Takano, in Japan, smartphone owners account for 60% of the population. Even if as many as 60% of all smartphone owners install the app to their devices, this will only mean that the probability is 13% that two persons have close contact and both own a smartphone with the app installed. Furthermore, receiving an alert from the app is meaningless unless PCR testing is widely available to the public. It is unlikely that many people will take the trouble to download the app.

Takano underscored the need to take a cautious attitude toward the government move to use the introduction of this new app to open the way for promoting the business use of GPS data and information sharing of personal information between government and business sectors.
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