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From Bluetooth to privacy: What is known about the app that will help fight COVID-19 in Portugal

Around the world, COVID-19's tracking solutions to combat the pandemic that is marking this year have been several. Certainly, we are launching an app in Portugal soon that aims to help health authorities to track infected people "and whose code will be made available in open source, using a system that uses Bluetooth technology. The guarantee was given to SAPO TeK by Rui Oliveira, of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC), the entity responsible for coordinating the project.

Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, as soon as someone is confirmed to be infected, they are faced with several issues. With whom you have been in the last few days or where you have been, just a few of the questions asked, in a lengthy and always incomplete task, since it depends on the memory of each one. This is where this application comes in, explains Rui Oliveira.

With a clear desire for the app to be launched on the App Store and Google Play Store by the end of May, the professor at the University of Minho explains that, when it is official, the application poses only one question to users. However, Rui Oliveira recalls that the launch date does not depend solely on the Institute. First, it is necessary to guarantee the integration of this system with the health authorities and, on the other hand, it is necessary to test and evaluate this technology that has never been used by applications.

On the users side, if they want the app, still in the prototype stage, to perform the tracking, they will have to grant access to Bluetooth technology, without having any relationship with the geolocation and data sharing strategies used initially in other countries. Personal data such as email or user names will not be requested.

Privacy: an important issue valued by the app

But how does this voluntary process work in practice? With the code name StayAway, the app will allow interested users to discover, for themselves, an occasion of proximity in the last 14 days with someone confirmed as infected with the new coronavirus. This is based on public information and certified by health authorities. Whenever activated, the app for iOS and Android will send the next anonymous identifiers to mobile phones, keeping, at the same time, identifiers that it receives.

In this way, a person confirmed as infected with COVID-19 can publish online, with the legitimacy of the health authorities, his anonymous identifiers that he has shared in the last 14 days. With this public information, the application of each person can independently assess whether in the previous days it has been close to the infected person.

The application does not share data with anyone, nor with the Portuguese and European authorities, or with Apple and Google, for example, explains Rui Oliveira

At a time when the European Commission has already made it clear that it is necessary to safeguard the privacy of users of tracking apps, the member of the INESC TEC Board of Directors ensures that the application respects European and national privacy rules. In addition, users' anonymity is also ensured.

also in this sense that, when the app is launched, "all source code will be available to anyone", in open source. The objective is to guarantee transparency in relation to privacy and the scrutiny of the community itself. "On the other hand, the team may also be alerted to possible bugs, which is also an asset, explains Rui Oliveira. Instituto is evaluating the application, which will also pass the scrutiny of the National Cybersecurity Center.