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Dear Diary: contact tracing goes digital

Paul Brislen, Editor. 20 May 2020, 9:51 am

The government's contact tracing app has hit the market and promises to be just what the Prime Minister called it - a digital diary.

The app doesn't include the bells and whistles of Bluetooth and tokenisation that other nations have deployed, albeit with limited success, instead focusing on providing the user with the ability to check in and out of locations using a QR code.

These details are then stored locally on the phone - accessible only by the user. To share the results (should you test positive) a Ministry of Health official will call the user and talk through each day in the diary, working out times and locations from the data. Later versions may have the ability to upload that data directly to MoH contact tracing personnel, but for now it's a phone call.

The QR codes are provided by the Ministry of Building, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and relate to both the business-owner's business ID number and also location. This means they could be used in future by other agencies (police or emergency services, for example) when responding to issues at that location - thus reducing re-keying requirements for report writing.

This is all part of the Ministry of Health's approach to data sharing which is best described as being similar to "open banking" in that while data is held and privacy controlled carefully, access to the process and service should be open for other users to develop on top of the capability.

The tracing app in its first iteration is so basic and straightforward (a design decision made early on in the process to encourage trust and thus usage) that it doesn't meet the criteria for Level 2 business owners, who must record the names and contact details of visitors to their premises - so without a change to the rules it's likely businesses will still insist on users signing in to some form of record for their use. Just remember to take your own pen.

Internationally, these kinds of apps have popped up in various locations and are used with a varying degree of success. Despite more than four million downloads, the Australian app has yet to be used to track a single case of COVID-19 and with New Zealand's track record of infections suggesting we have little if any community spread, the chances of contracting the disease and reporting against it are slim.

However, users of the app will have much better ability to recall exactly where and when they visited locations should the need arise.

(DISCLAIMER: This writer also works for a company involved in the creation of the app, although he didn't know it at the time.)



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