The government has unveiled a plan to deploy a contact-tracing smartphone app that will send notifications to users who may have come into contact with people infected with the new coronavirus, touting it as minimally intrusive in a bid to secure the widest possible adoption of the app.
A special task force dubbed the Anti-COVID-19 Tech Team disclosed details about the app, slated to debut next month, on Tuesday.
Employing a technology codeveloped by internet giants Apple Inc. and Google Inc., the app automatically exchanges Bluetooth signals between users and later sends “exposure notifications” to those who have been in close contact with patients who test positive for COVID-19.
Downloading the app was described as completely optional. Unlike some overseas versions, the Japanese app does not harvest information such as a person’s name, date of birth, location or phone number — a measure that the government claims will prevent any risk of authorities identifying or surveilling those who receive notifications.
Officials are hoping the app will serve as a deterrent against a second wave of infections considered to be a growing risk in Japan, as it marches toward reopening businesses and schools and as more commute on trains. The nation completely lifted its state of emergency on Monday.
While warning against a resurgence, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the planned contact-tracing app as “key” to help facilitate efforts by the authorities to identify and stamp out virus clusters, calling for its widespread usage.
The way the system works is that a user’s smartphone will obtain and preserve the encrypted, randomly allocated codes of other users whenever they are within one meter of each other for more than 15 minutes.
If one user later tests positive for COVID-19 and agrees to confirm their infection status using the app, other users who have come into contact with them over the past 14 days will be notified.
When the exposure notification is sent, the receiver will not be provided with any details of who the patient is or when and where the particular encounter occurred, just that they were recently exposed to someone who now has the virus.
Those alerted that they have been near someone who tested positive will then be advised by the app on the next steps they should take, such as consulting with public health officials, so they can proactively help rein in the spread of the virus.
The system’s success will hinge on how widely it is adopted by the general population, with experts pointing out that a penetration rate of about 60 percent would be needed for the app to be effective.
But if history is anything to go by, the government has a difficult task ahead of it.
Singapore — where the public’s tolerance for state surveillance is said to be relatively high — reportedly saw only a quarter of its population download its noncompulsory contact-tracing app, TraceTogether, as of last month.
By providing assurances that privacy will be protected, Japan’s government hopes to make the app as palatable as possible for the public.
“It’s true that the more invasive an app is, the easier it makes contact-tracing. But then, such an app will most likely be snubbed by many prospective users,” said Norihiro Kiyoshige, an official from the IT taskforce.
“We thought guaranteeing privacy and assuring people of its safety would be the most effective way to boost the app’s penetration,” he added.
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