A smartphone app is being developed to alert people who have potentially had close contact with people infected with the novel coronavirus.
The government is required to carefully explain the purpose of introducing such an app to gain the public’s understanding.
The app utilizes the short-range wireless communication technology called Bluetooth available in smartphones. When app users are in close proximity over a certain period of time, their mutual data are automatically recorded on their smartphones.
If app users test positive for the virus, this information is registered in the app by the users via institutions such as public health centers. Those recorded as having had close contact with the infected people will receive notifications, with the infected people’s information concealed. The government aims to implement the system by the end of this month.
When people can find out they have the possibility of being infected, they would be encouraged to refrain from going out and apply for a virus test. The system would be one of the approaches to help prevent a second wave of infections from spreading while economic and social activities are being resumed. It is also expected that the burden placed on public health centers — interviewing infected people about their recent history of movement — will be reduced.
If people can’t take the virus test immediately after receiving notifications, however, it will only make their anxiety increase. To realize effective use of the app, it is essential to expand and improve the testing system.
Whether to use the app is optional. As more people use the app, more useful results will be achieved. In Singapore, where a similar app has been introduced, the rate of usage remains at the 20% level. Some have pointed out that requiring the registration of users’ phone numbers has made people wary.
The app being developed in Japan will not ask for users’ phone numbers. It will not use location information on the smartphones to track infected people as has already been implemented in China and South Korea. In addition, the recorded contact data will be deleted after a set period of time and neither the government nor the app developer will manage the data.
It can be said that taking such measures is realistic in Japan, where the public has a strong sense of reluctance to allow the government to have access to personal information. The government should make it known to the public that the app’s system is designed to protect privacy.
The government plans to ask infected persons and people notified of having potential close contact via the app to register in a unified system to manage information of infected people.
Building trust in government systems of information management is the prerequisite for measures against the virus, as data on infected people and people with a record of close contact definitely need to be collected.
In Aichi Prefecture, private information solely managed by the prefectural government, including names of infected people in the prefecture and their hospitals, were posted by mistake on its website, leaving them accessible for a while to anyone.
Personal data breaches and gradually expanding the scope of the data’s use beyond preventing infections must be avoided.
The central government needs to create an environment in which people can feel safe about using the system, while setting rules for monitoring and supervising the system after its launch.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 17, 2020.