Covid Alert SA app: How it works, why it won’t steal your personal information – experts explain

With South Africa now enjoying more freedom and movement under level 1 lockdown restrictions, we need to do all that we can to ensure that we continue to see a decline in cases and remain in level 1. This is essential not only to the people of South Africa, but to its businesses too. Social distancing, wearing a mask and washing hands regularly are important in limiting the transmission of the virus. While these practices are essential, so too is rapid contact tracing. By utilising the Covid Alert SA app, you are effectively adding another layer of safety. Of course, many people are still unsure of how it works and how safe it is from a privacy perspective. Listen to the experts* explain how the app works and what steps have been taken to ensure your privacy is protected. – Jarryd Neves

Dr Ryan Noach – CEO of Discovery Health

We’re very excited about the Covid Alert SA app. We built it at no cost to the Department of Health and have given it to them. It’s their app. They have contributed cost towards it too. The Presidency has been involved in supporting the Department of Health on it. It uses the Apple/Google API, which Apple and Google created for the whole world’s benefit.

We would encourage as many people as possible to download the Covid SA app. Once you’ve downloaded it and switched it on, there’s nothing more to do. It works in the background of your phone and as long as your Bluetooth is on, it will warn you if you’ve come into contact with somebody who is Covid-19 positive.

I had a good chat recently with one of our leading lawyers, Emma Sadleir, who explained in great detail why she has downloaded the app and why the privacy issues are not there. As you said before on the Google and Apple development, it was specifically to take that into account. She did say to me that you had a senior counsel from your side who made sure that all the privacy regulations were followed. Why go to such extremes?

In 2020, privacy has to be first and foremost in our minds and everything that we do. Certainly as a financial services company – dealing with confidential financial and medical information – we don’t do anything without first ensuring that it’s safe, secure and that privacy is protected. So, that’s a routine part of our governance. Of course, the Department of Health – who owns the app – have done all sorts of due diligence and privacy checks on it, too. You can be assured that your identity is not disclosed.

The technology is so clever. It stores a token on your local device for the phones that you’ve come into contact with. If one of those phones recognises the Covid-19 positive patient, the tokens talk to each other and the token shows up on your phone. After 14 days of no exposure, those tokens are completely destroyed and disappear from your device. There’s actually no identity attached to the tokens at all. It’s a very secure environment.

Gaurang Tanna – Head of Policy Co-ordination and Integrated Planning at the National Department of Health

So, the way the app works is that you download the app, with the intention to receive a notification from somebody else who may test positive later, and may have come into contact with you. So it’s very important that people download this app before they become infected. We encourage all South Africans to download the app. In the eventuality that they come into contact with someone who’s positive, and hoping that person also had the app on, both of them could be protected.

Read also: How the Covid-19 alert app works in SA – govt expert

The index case would then be able to inform you that they have come into contact with you and have now reported positive. If you walk into a supermarket and another positive person came into close contact with you – who didn’t know they had the virus – this person could a few days later, notify them of their diagnosis on the app. The app will then do the rest, notifying all the close contacts that the person came into contact with.

Now I get that. But the problem here is Big Brother knows where you are at any point in time. So how are we protected against that? 

A very important question. This is how it works. I would have the app installed on my phone. You would have the app installed on your phone. The app doesn’t know my name. Your app doesn’t know your name. Both apps have unique IDs. If we come into close contact with each other, say within two metres, or for a sufficient duration like 15 minutes (we use the WHOs as guidance on this), the apps would exchange IDs. Say a couple of days later I report positive. I didn’t know I came into contact with you. Only our phones know that this phone had a close exposure with that phone.

Only our phones know that this phone had a close exposure with that phone.

So your phones are really your proxy measure of distance between two people. I would notify my device of my positive diagnosis using the PIN code that the Department of Health would have sent me. The app would then notify all the close contacts and do the rest.

And it’s all part of this project that Apple and Google have put together to make sure that isn’t going to be any abuse? 

So, there are two key pieces of technology that make it work. The first is Apple/Google interoperability between the two sets of devices and the app itself. The second is the validation of a positive. What you don’t want is a person who deliberately comes into close contact with thousands of people and then fictitiously reporting a positive to create panic in the system. The app has got a built-in validation process. Every person that gets a confirmed positive result will receive a PIN code. The PIN codes, by the way, are sent to positives and negatives.

It’s on capture of that PIN code, together with your date of birth, that the app would then verify that against our Covid Connect system and verify indeed that this is a true positive and allow the exchange of keys to happen. This is just to ensure that the fidelity of the system is not compromised in any way. But the two are completely different services. The validation service and the exposure notification service that we use with support from Google and Apple are totally independent services of each other and therefore very much privacy preserving.

Emma Sadleir – Founder and CEO of The Digital Law Company

The manual methods – although helpful – are quickly overwhelmed. Let’s use this amazing tech that’s available to us. There is no reason to be suspicious. Come and contact me if you find out that your information has been misused, I’ll take the hit. 

I really do think that people should download this Covid Alert SA app. I think it’s a good step because we all want to get back to normal life and this is a step towards that. This will allow us to live our lives as normally as possible because we will have the comfort of quick notification. It’s immediate. It’s not like we have to go through the list of every person we come across. Immediately, you get a pop-up on your phone saying you’ve been exposed on this day and then you can take the steps required. 

Read also: Covid Alert SA: ‘I really do think people should download this app’ – privacy law expert. LISTEN!

So it is a little bit about selflessness. You don’t really want to go out there and make other people sick. If you believe in that, here is a tool that can help you to achieve that more noble ambition, than somebody who lives in ignorance and might unwittingly be making lots of others ill by not really knowing their status.

Absolutely. It’s selflessness, but it’s also allowing me to be selfish because it allows me to go on with my normal life and be exposed to people that I don’t know, with the comfort of knowing that I will be notified if there is any potential exposure. For me, it’s a no brainer. Exposure notification and early exposure notification is really absolutely critical to how we contain this epidemic going forward. The technology is there and let’s use it. 

Professor Preiser – Head: Division of Medical Virology, Stellenbosch University

Within the limitations that these things may have, if a sufficient number of people use it, it will help. In fact, I am currently attending a workshop and one of the intended participants can’t make it. So, we are Zooming him in because he has been diagnosed with Covid.

He is coughing, but otherwise is not doing too badly. But, he does not know where he would have become infected. So the hope is that by more widespread use of these apps, he would have received a warning from somebody that he encountered who at the time, was very likely still feeling perfectly well. Then, a day later came down with a cough and a fever, went to have a test, got the results a day or two later, and then found that he had Covid and exposed others. I think this is where apps can really help. I’m all for it.

*Dr Ryan Noach is the CEO of Discovery Health. Gaurang Tanna is the Head of Policy Co-ordination and Integrated Planning at the National Department of Health. Emma Sadleir is an expert on social media law and the founder and CEO of The Digital Law Company. Professor Wolfgang Preiser is the head of the division of Medical Virology at the University of Stellenbosch.

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