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Poland switches to privacy-conscious contact tracing

Image credit: Savenkomasha | Dreamstime.com

The Polish government has released a new version of its app for tracing coronavirus infections which has been adapted to address privacy concerns, Reuters has reported.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, contact tracing refers to identifying the contacts of a person with Covid-19 who may have been exposed, such that they can take action to prevent further transmission.

Dozens of governments have released or are preparing to release contact tracing app. These apps use Bluetooth or geolocation to detect contacts also using the app, who can be automatically and anonymously warned when they may have been exposed to the virus.

The Polish government released the initial version of its ProteGO app in April. The app used a centralised model, in which some data are uploaded to a server for processing and storage when a person marks themselves as Covid-19 positive in the app. This model, which is also being used by France and the UK, has attracted criticism from lawmakers, academics and activists due to its privacy implications.

Following a partial relaxation of social restrictions in the country, the Polish government has released an updated version of ProteGO which addresses some of the privacy concerns. The latest version of the app appears to be fully decentralised: personal data are stored and processed on users’ devices.

This decentralised model is supported by the Exposure Notification API, built by Apple and Google for public health authorities and released in May. Adoption of the API should also resolve some other issues with existing apps, such as iOS users having to keep the app open on their screen due to restrictions on third-party apps’ use of Bluetooth in the background.

Marek Zagorski, Poland's digital minister, commented during a remote conference that the government had paid close attention to privacy issues: “The application does not collect, process or transfer any data outside, except for the anonymous keys that are used to activate the notification module. It is completely anonymous,” he said.

Zagorski explained that the aim of the update was to make the app interoperable with other decentralised European apps. Other European countries opting for the decentralised contact tracing model - supported by Apple and Google - include Italy, Latvia, Austria, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Germany (which also switched from a centralised model over privacy concerns).

Zagorski added that at least 30-40 per cent of smartphone users would need to use the app for it to be effective.

“We are talking here not about thousands but about millions of users in Poland and this is our goal. We hope that we will be able to persuade Poles to install this application for a dozen or so weeks, so that […] we are better prepared for the second wave.”

Meanwhile in the UK, scientists sitting on the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Independent SAGE) have criticised England’s test-and-trace strategy. While the UK government plans to release a centralised contact-tracing app across England, Wales and Scotland following a trial on the Isle of Wight, it has recently shifted its emphasis from app-based to manual contact tracing as a pillar of the test-and-trace strategy.

“The effective operation […] is also complicated by the apparent failure of the app that was designed to facilitate identification of contacts of those who have Covid-19,” the latest Independent SAGE report [PDF] says. “When it was planned, it was hailed by ministers as being essential. Now it is described as of marginal importance.”

The Independent SAGE scientists advised faster and more accurate testing; public information campaigns; more involvement of local health authorities, and a fully operational team of contact tracers, among other measures to ensure that the strategy would be effective.

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