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To use or not to use the COVID-19 tracking app? It is a matter of trust, but also of effectiveness in fighting the pandemic

In several countries around the world, and especially in Europe, applications are being prepared to monitor the movements of citizens infected with COVID-19 and alert the authorities and / or other people of situations of proximity that may lead to contagion. The solutions are several, using different technologies, and Apple and Google have already developed APIs to allow easier integration with the iOS and Android operating systems. But the controversy has been great with many users and human rights organizations warning of the possible breach of privacy.

These and other issues were raised in another APDC webinar, dedicated to Digital Contact Tracing COVID-19, in which Jos Manuel Mendona, Full Professor at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Porto and chairman of the INESC TEC Board of Directors, who coordinated the entire project for the creation of mobile applications, Paulo Portas, lawyer, politician, commentator, and Henrique Barros, president of the Public Health Institute of the University of Porto, full professor at the Faculty of Medicine of Porto and president of IEA – International Epidemiological Asociation. Even not agreeing on all points, the three experts advocated solutions for monitoring citizens, but always with the guarantee of compliance with the policy and safeguarding privacy.

The idea that it is only with the adoption of a traceability tool that it will be possible to contain the spread of the pandemic, especially now that the State of emergency has ended and the phase of deconfusion has begun, underlying Jos Manuel Mendona's presentation, who presented in detail the operation of the STAYWAY COVID-19 app.

With the end of the lack of definition, personal contacts will increase dramatically and screening will require much more than a traditional approach, says the professor, who points out that manual systems are going to be inefficient and that information is increasingly incomplete.

The use of the app always involves voluntary participation and uses Bluetooth technology to share anonymous and impersonal codes so that, if a user is diagnosed with COVID-19, the codes that he broadcast in the last 14 days are shared publicly on a secure platform. This happens only with the consent of the user and the legitimacy on the part of a doctor, who confirms the infection, as emphasized by the project coordinator.

Mobile phone applications will periodically download the codes of people who have been infected, crossing the information. If there is a coincidence there is potential for contagion and the user is alerted by the application, indicating that he should contact the health services

This method of operation had already been explained in an interview with SAPO TEK, and Jos Manuel Mendona guarantees that this is structurally simple but that all data privacy is guaranteed. All codes are anonymous, random and not anonymous, do not leave the phone, only when voluntarily and with the doctor's certification, put them on the platform, describes the professor, adding that all codes are eliminated after 14 days and that The system will be subject to an impact assessment by the National Data Protection Commission, with the code being made available in an open and audited manner by the National Cybersecurity Center.

The testing of the STAYWAY COVID-19 app is underway by the INESCTEC team, with two startups in its universe, keyruptive and UbiRider and at the end of the month, that is, in two weeks, it should be published in Apple stores and from Google, to be downloaded and activated by Portuguese users, but also in a logic of interoperability with other European solutions that are being developed.

In his speech, Paulo Portas raised several issues related to rights, freedoms and guarantees, and tended to be in favor of these solutions, knowing the risks he could run. Framing what happened in authoritarian and democratic models, he made the observation that the use of digital tools were, with different degrees of efficiency and effectiveness, determinants in Asian countries that achieved better results, remembering that they were used to break contagion chains and to reconcile a partial confinement, or a partial deflation, with the minimum security guarantees for the population in terms of public health. a de facto observation, it has nothing ideological about it, he says.

The way Europe is approaching this issue seen by Paulo Portas with concern, because there is a delay of months and a half to two months, which affects health and the economy, but underlines that it is important for Portugal to focus on a good solution.

We are at the beginning of a partial deflation and we are already late, because there is a risk of an increase in contamination. The only way to make this partial defibrillation safely track contagions, he argues, stating that the application will be decisive to prevent a second wave of epidemic. Still, it recognizes the risks that may arise from using the data collected for other purposes.

A stethoscope and a puzzle piece

Epidemiologist Henrique Barros, who heads the Public Health Institute of the University of Porto, a partner in the development of the applicationSTAYWAY COVID-19, was also favorable to the benefits of using the traceability application, but recalls that it does not replace the human side, making a comparison with a stethoscope that helps to auscultate and advancing with the view that one more piece of a puzzle to help in the answer.

There are problems with manual identification of contagions. I can not remember with all the people I have been with in the last few days, explains the president of the Instituto de Sade Pblica of the University of Porto.

But in order for efficiency to become effective, people have to use it [the application], warns Henrique Barros, remembering the Singapore accounts, where only 20% of the population used the application, which means that the likelihood of meeting reduce to 4%. The application is effective if 60% of people use it, admits the teacher who shows confidence in the security of the data and in the fact that the key to releasing the information is in a doctor.