StopCOVID NI Mobile App: Q&A

This explainer article answers some of the questions you may have about the StopCOVID NI Mobile App and how it works. We will update the article as, and when, new information becomes available.

[This piece is part of the COVID-19 Information Dissemination (COVID-19 ID) Project — a partnership between Community Development and Health Network (CDHN) and FactCheckNI. Its aim is to improve people’s health literacy about COVID-19 by providing accurate and up-to-date information which will increase knowledge, understanding and confidence and enable people to make good health decisions.]

Here are some questions and answers with regard to StopCOVID NI Mobile App

What is a contact tracing app?

A contact tracing app is a smartphone application that helps people detect if they have been in close contact with someone who has subsequently received a positive test for COVID-19.

How does the StopCOVID NI app work, and how does it share data?

When the StopCOVID NI app is installed on your Apple or Android smartphone, it generates a random Bluetooth identifier that changes every 10 to 20 minutes. This identifier is a string of random numbers, and is anonymous.

If you are in contact with another app user, your phones will exchange identifiers. This data will be stored on your phone, and it will not be shared with anyone else unless you or a contact receives a positive test result for COVID-19.

If a person using the app receives a positive test result for COVID-19, then they will be asked by a contact tracer if they consent to uploading a list of their Bluetooth identifiers for the last 14 days to a database. No data that could be used to personally identify you, such as your name or your phone number, will be stored.

Generally, you will only be only considered at risk if you have been within 2 metres of another individual testing positive for COVID-19 for a period of 15 minutes or more.

At least once every two hours, the StopCOVID NI app on your phone will try to match your list of Bluetooth contact identifiers against the central list of identifiers associated with people who have received a positive test result in the last 14 days. If the StopCOVID NI app identifies a match indicating that you have been in close contact with someone who received a positive COVID-19 test result then it will notify you immediately and advise you about next steps.

Since its launch on 31 July 2020, the StopCOVID NI app has been downloaded more than 300,000 times.

The Executive also detailed that to date, 160 people who have had a positive test for COVID have uploaded data from their apps and then 237 others have been alerted through the app’s exposure notification, advising them to self-isolate.

On 26 August 2020, it was announced that the app will be extended to under-18s “from next month.”

What technology does the StopCOVID NI app use?

The app is built on the Exposure Notification API framework. This decentralised framework was created jointly by Apple and Google to help public health authorities around the world curb the spread of COVID-19 using Bluetooth technology in mobile phones.

It has been built to ensure user privacy and to use Bluetooth technology in a power-efficient way. While recent operating system updates have added support for the framework to phones, the collection of Bluetooth contacts is only activated—users are prompted to enable the service, much like an app would ask for permission to use the phone’s camera or microphone—if you choose to install a contact tracing app on your phone, and can be deactivated at any time.

HSCNI says that the StopCOVID NI app requires “the newest versions of the iOS and Android operating systems”. On Apple devices, the underlying framework is built into—but not enabled until an app is installed and the user gives permission—operating system iOS 13.5 and above (first released to the public on 20 May 2020). This is supported on iPhone 6S and later devices (but not iPhone 6 or earlier handsets). The framework should be compatible with devices running Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) and later versions of the operating system, though the StopCOVID NI app itself may require a more recent version of Android (such as 7.0 Nougat).

What data does the app share with third parties?

Your randomly generated Bluetooth identifiers will be shared with other people running the app on their phones and stored for up to 14 days. However, no data is shared with the health authorities unless either of the following events takes place:

    • a user consents to report that they have received a positive test, then a list of their Bluetooth identifiers from the last 14 days will be uploaded to a database so that their close contacts can be alerted; or
    • a user is notified through the app that they have been in close contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19, then the app will share the date the contact took place, the duration of the contact and the Bluetooth signal strength when the contact took place.

No data that could personally identify a user, such as a name or phone number, or location data, is ever shared with the health authorities, Apple or Google.

At any time, users will be able to remove or disable the technology. Data will only be shared with the health authorities with your explicit consent.

Does the app need to be open in order to work?

No. The app does not need to be open and runs in the background. Your phone does not need to be unlocked. You do not need to have a mobile data signal or have access to Wi-Fi to exchange contact information with other phones, but Bluetooth will need to be enabled.

If I have a brief contact with someone (for example, I brush past them in a shop), will the app register this as a contact?

No. You will need to be within 2 metres of someone for a period of at least 15 minutes for this to be seen as a potential contact.

Is the StopCOVID NI app a replacement for contact tracing carried out by trained professionals?

No. Not everyone owns or carries a smart phone with a tracing app installed. So human contact tracers will continue to play a role in identifying known contacts of individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The app will play an important role in notifying people who have been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, where they do not know him or her personally. The app could potentially notify contacts faster than conventional contact tracing methods.

Is it compulsory to download and use the StopCOVID NI app?

No. Use of the app is voluntary, and you control what data you choose to share with the health authorities. However, the higher the proportion of the population that uses the app, the more effective it will be in detecting contacts and allowing testing to be arranged for people potentially infected.

Will Apple or Google use data from the app for commercial purposes?

No. Neither Apple nor Google will monetise data created by the app.

Who developed the StopCOVID NI app?

Northern Ireland’s contact tracing app has been developed by NearForm. The code used to build the StopCOVID NI is based on the COVID Tracker app in the Republic of Ireland. This source code, which is open source (meaning that anyone can access the code used to create the app) has been donated to the not-for-profit Linux Foundation.

This source code is also being used for contact tracing apps in other countries and regions, including Gibraltar and a number of states in the United States.

Where can I download the StopCOVID NI app?

The app was officially launched on 30 July. You can download it from the Apple App and Google Play stores.

Will the StopCOVID NI app work outside Northern Ireland?

The app is based on the same source code as the app used in the Republic of Ireland, and you will be able to use the Northern Ireland app either side of the border.

Currently there are no live contact tracing apps in Scotland, England or Wales. However, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland has advised that the Northern Ireland app will also be compatible with apps in Great Britain, when these are released.

On Tuesday 28 July 2020, Health Minister Robin Swann told the Northern Ireland Assembly that “the [StopCOVID NI] app will be interoperable with the one already in use in the Republic of Ireland”, adding that “it is also highly likely to be compatible with apps introduced in future across the UK and Europe”.

On 26 August 2020, details of cross-border integration were also detailed—with “60 Northern Ireland ‘diagnosis keys’ being passed across the border to health authorities in the Republic of Ireland and 1,042 ‘diagnosis keys’ being passed in return.”

Can I have multiple contact tracing apps installed on my phone?

Only one contact tracing app can be active at a time. Only apps built for your region will be available in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. In Northern Ireland, you can currently install the StopCOVID NI app or Covid Tracker Ireland apps on Apple devices, but only one will actively check the Bluetooth contacts recorded on your phone against a national database.

References

Exposure Notification: Frequently Asked Questions

Nearform: COVID Green code donated to the Linux Foundation

COVID Green technical documentation (Day-to-Day Contact Tracing Flow)

COVID Green technical documentation (Positive Test Result Flow)

Belfast Live article on Stop COVID NI with claim from Dan West on north-south and NI-GB interoperability

This article was originally published on 29 July 2020.


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