The government launched Friday a free smartphone application that alerts users when they may have been in close proximity to someone infected with the coronavirus.
While the app (for IOS devices, for Android devices) potentially raises privacy concerns, the government says it was designed with privacy in mind and that personally identifiable data are not collected from users.
“It does not collect personal data at all. People can use it without worry,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a news conference Thursday, encouraging people to download the app to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
When individuals who are using the app come into contact with one another at a distance of a meter or less for 15 minutes or more, their smartphones automatically record the event in an encrypted state using Bluetooth wireless technology.
The record will remain in their devices for up to 14 days before it is automatically removed.
If a user tests positive and registers that in the app, other users who come into close proximity to the individual will receive an alert from the app.
Registering a positive test result only requires that the patient use the “processing number” assigned by health authorities, rather than names, phone numbers and other personal information.
Information on time and place of contact, as well as patients’ identities, cannot be known by the government and other app users, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which is operating the program.
The tool is expected to improve the current tracing system, which is based on interviews with infected people conducted by officials from public health centers.
Meanwhile, technology experts say the app needs to be widely used to be truly effective as it requires the accumulation of a certain amount of contact data.
But many countries that have introduced similar tracking apps are struggling to convince citizens to sign up for the service due to privacy concerns.
In Singapore, the number of app users stood at around 1.8 million, about 25 percent of its population, still short of the minimum of 75 percent needed for the app to work well, The Straits Times daily reported earlier this month.
In France, 55 percent of people surveyed said they would not use a contact-tracing app, the national daily Le Figaro reported last month.
According to foreign research, at least 60 percent of a nation’s populace should be using such an app for it to be effective.
The health ministry has emphasized it does not use the app to collect personal data, such as name, date of birth, gender, address, phone number, email address or location information.
But some people have voiced concern about the possibility of being monitored.
“I don’t want to use it as it seems like my actions would be under surveillance,” a Tokyo woman in her 30s said.
Experts on data usage and privacy have said that for the app to be commonly used, a system involving third-party monitoring is necessary to ensure data will not be used for other purposes.
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