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COVID Alert SA: Is it safe to download the new coronavirus app?

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Cyril Ramaphosa has implored all South Africans to download the new coronavirus app: Here's what the experts think of the 'COVID Alert SA' feature.

President Ramaphosa revealed on Wednesday night that he wants ‘everybody with a smartphone in South Africa’ to download the new coronavirus app, developed by the government to assist with track and trace efforts. Cyril explained that the COVID Alert SA feature will ‘quickly identify and contain outbreaks’ before they get out of control.

Cyril Ramaphosa on SA’s new coronavirus app

However, a government-backed, data collection app is a source scepticism for many South Africans. Ramaphosa has tried to get the doubters onside, stressing that anonymity remains a key feature of the device:

“Effective testing and contact tracing systems will allow us to quickly identify and contain outbreaks before they spread further. I want to make a call this evening to everyone who has a smartphone in South Africa to download the COVID Alert mobile app from the Apple AppStore or Google Play Store.”

“The app has been zero-rated by mobile networks, so you can download it without any data costs.The app is completely anonymous, it does not gather any personal information, nor does it track anybody’s location.”

Cyril Ramaphosa

Is it safe to download the COVID Alert SA app?

But, with public trust in the government far from overwhelming in this country, Ramaphosa has an uphill task in trying to convince every citizen to get on board with this project. Thankfully, the fact-checking specialists at explain.co.za have done their own analysis on the COVID Alert SA app – and they reckon that users are ‘fairly safe’ when downloading the feature:

“The app is fairly safe. That’s because it doesn’t actually collect any information about you. Rather, it uses an anonymised code to alert anyone you’ve been in contact with over the last fourteen days if you’ve tested positive for COVID-19. And you’ll get an alert too, if someone you’ve been in contact with in the last fourteen days has tested positive.”

“Your information is not stored anywhere – not a database, not some old cabinet in a dusty government office or in a hacker’s computer. The app appears to be far less invasive than similar apps seen abroad. COVID Alert SA does not collect information about your location, identity or contacts.”

Aarti Bhana of Explain

Download the coronavirus app: How will track and trace work in South Africa?

Contact tracing is a process used to slow the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19. It enables people to record who they have been in direct contact with over the past 14 days, and if they have possibly been infected with COVID-19 as a result. Doing this manually takes time, and there’s always a risk of missing close contacts – technology speeds this up.

Using Bluetooth, the app emits a randomly generated code picked by other users when two phones are in close proximity if one another. Each user builds an “encounter history” through this method, and at no point is anyone’s identity revealed.

When one user tests positive, they are requested to report their diagnosis anonymously in the COVID Alert SA app. All other users who have been in contact with them over the past 14 days will immediately be notified of their exposure.

The pros and cons of COVID Alert SA

Data privacy researcher Murray Hunter also shared his expert opinion. He stated that the coronavirus app developed by the government ‘has no idea who’s who’, and that Ramaphosa is telling the truth about the identity protection equipment. However, Hunter did concede there’s at least one privacy shortcoming, related to ‘public policy’.

Essentially, COVID Alert SA will protect your anonymity, and it’s severely limited in terms of what information it can pass on. However, it has been argued that more downloads are needed before the government can prove this is an effective app:

“The privacy infrastructure is generally good on this, the government and health authorities have no idea who’s who and it kind of relies on the honour system for each of us to correctly report our COVID status, so our contacts can be duly notified”

“I do think that a lot more information needs to be made public about the role the app is playing in public policy and how many people are needed to use it before it becomes effective. That information has not been provided and it’s important if people are to wrap their heads around this.”

Murray Hunter

Source: The South African Read More

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