Japan's contact-tracing app suspended again to fix input glitch preventing alerts

by Satoshi Sugiyama

staff writer

The government’s COVID-19 contact-tracing application for smartphones has been temporarily shelved again to address a glitch that is preventing users from entering critical information to send out alerts.

After infected users enter their individual reference numbers issued by health authorities, the app is supposed to notify people who had close contact with them. The health ministry confirmed Friday that the app does not recognize the numbers even when entered, impeding the notification process.

The app was suspended Saturday and is not expected to be back in operation until the coming week. It will still keep track of contact history but won’t be able to send alerts.

Friday’s announcement marks the second time the application, named Cocoa (contact-confirming application), has run into problems since it was launched on June 19.

The first glitch, revealed four days after launch, also involved the reference numbers. The health ministry said at that time that the app was accidentally accepting numbers other than those issued by authorities but did not send out any false alerts. The notification setting was restored on July 3.

As of Friday, the app had been downloaded about 6.48 million times for Apple and Android devices.

The app uses Bluetooth to log interactions among users if they come within a meter or less of each other for at least 15 minutes. The data is deleted after 14 days, roughly matching the incubation period for COVID-19.

If Cocoa users confirmed as infected enter their reference numbers, those who have been in close contact will be automatically notified, which would lead to more testing and facilitate contact tracing. Government officials say Japan’s coronavirus case count has been kept relatively low because of aggressive contract tracing. Officials hope the app will boost these efforts.

To alleviate privacy concerns, users do not need to register any personal information, including name or phone number, when entering their individual reference numbers.

Singapore, the United Kingdom and France have also rolled out contract-tracing apps.

As of Friday, nearly 21,200 people in Japan had been infected with COVID-19 and over 980 had died from it.

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