The Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM) has announced that a new, official COVID-19 tracker app is now available to download for people confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. The widespread use of the contact-tracing smartphone app called ‘VirusRadar,’ can prove effective in the response efforts to the epidemic and could slow down the spread of the virus.
The use of the VirusRadar app is strictly voluntary, State Secretary Tamás Schanda said at yesterday’s press conference of the Operative Board. He said confirmed patients are free to choose whether or not they want to download it and decide whether they want to share their data with healthcare authorities as well.
Although the idea had already come up in Hungary before, as tracking through software had previously been implemented with great success in Singapore and South Korea, the Operative Board did not push for its introduction over data protection concerns.
How it works
Users enter a phone number while registering with the app, which then connects to the central server and sends a code via SMS, thus establishing a connection between the phone number and the app’s unique ID. Then, the app uses Bluetooth to communicate with other users and exchanges encrypted, anonymous data about the distance of surrounding devices if they have been at a dangerous distance for the past 14 days.
If a user becomes infected, they can share their data with epidemiologists. Professionals can also ask an infected person who is using the information to share their data, thereby notifying people who have been in close contact with an infected person.
The data forwarded to the authorities can be used to trace contacts patients had interacted with within a 2 meter distance for at least 20 minutes in the last 14 days. This allows for targeted testing and the isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases in line with epidemiological protocols.
Deputy State Secretary Károly Balázs Solymár said that the app is already available for Android devices and would soon be made available for iOS devices as well, as it is still awaiting approval from Apple.
What are the advantages of using the app?
With the use of the app, people can break the chain of further infections sooner, as all users of VirusRadar contribute to the common fight against the virus. The more people use the app, the better and faster the response can be to possible infections. It makes it easier to find and contact those who may have also contracted the disease.
This gives users the opportunity to protect themselves, their family, and in the case of a possible infection, their environment. If someone near a user becomes infected with the coronavirus and shares the data collected in the app with professionals, they will inform everyone who was in close proximity with the confirmed patient about voluntary quarantine, testing, and what to do next.
What are the concerns?
Although some may be concerned about data protection, the Ministry of Innovation and Technology emphasize that the use of the app is voluntarily and the only data that can be linked to the users is their mobile number, which is stored on a secure server by the KIFÜ (Governmental Agency for IT Development) of the ITM. Hungarian news portal index.hu writes that the application has also undergone a full national security screening in Hungary to make sure the app is secure.
Although in theory, the app only uses a Bluetooth connection to work, it asks permission to access users’ geographic location. This is because the use of the low-energy Bluetooth LE system on mobile phones for some reason has fallen into the category of localization. By asking permission, they want to raise awareness that by using Bluetooth, users’ geographical location, even if not very accurate, can still be determined as well.
Contact research is less effective if our mobile phones sometimes turns off the app or does not allow it to run in the background or in full capacity. However, for security reasons, if users think it is temporarily necessary, they can turn off contact monitoring in the app itself any time.
It is not easy to cheat the system. If anyone accidentally presses the button or tries to prank their friends, the app will not notify their close contacts automatically, because first the public health center must also confirm that the owner of the phone number reporting the infection is indeed infected. They only start notifying friends or people who have been in close contact with them if they prove to be a confirmed patient.
The current app, introduced in Hungary, was developed by Next Sense in North Macedonia and is already being used in the country with the support of the Ministry of Health. The company offered the app for free to other countries, this is how it came to Hungary.
Featured photo illustration via pixabay.com