More than half a million South Africans have now downloaded the Covid-19 tracing app

Business Insider SA
  • More than 500,000 people have downloaded South Africa’s Covid-19 tracing app, the department of health says.
  • Government’s target is for ten million people to use the app.
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More than half a million South Africans have already downloaded the country’s Covid-19 tracing app, the department of health says.

The goal is to get ten million users on the app, Gaurang Tanna, policy co-ordination and integrated planning at the national department of health, told Netwerk24.

COVID Alert SA is a tiny app available for Android and Apple phones. It uses Bluetooth to watch for other phones with the app installed, and keeps an anonymous record of everyone you have been in contact with over two weeks.

If you test positive for Covid-19, you tell the app, and the app tells everyone you had contact with.

You should get an alert if anyone you had contact with reports themselves infected.

The usefulness of the app will depend on how many people install it, whether they keep their Bluetooth radios turned on, and how quickly they report positive test results.

If another 50,000 people download the app, and each asks two other people to download it too, SA could reach 10 million downloads within days, told Netwerk24.

The app was built by Discovery, on technology made available from the Android and Apple operating systems.

Maria Carpenter, head of digital channels at Discovery, told Netwerk24 that Discovery had to comply with very strict privacy conditions in building the app - and that Google and Apple initially were against them being involved.

In April, Google and Apple announced that they were working together  to create Bluetooth contact-tracing technology that governments could use to track the spread of Covid-19.

Apple and Google initially didn't want to allow Discovery to use the technology because it was a private entity. Discovery then turned to the department of health and ask whether it could build the app on its behalf, Carpenter told Netwerk24. Only one tracing app is allowed per country. Discovery will hand over the management of the app to government in three months’ time.

Carpenter says Discovery recognised that South Africans wouldn't trust an app which stores information in a central place, owned by government. As expected, there has been push-back among some South Africans who have privacy concerns, and do not want to download the app.

But Carpenter says that a decentralised approach was followed, which meant that none of the information on the app is stored in a central database, and the app is designed not to store any personal information.

The app does not have access to the contacts on your mobile phone, or Facebook friends, and it also doesn’t track your movements.

Covid Alert SA does not record your name or location. Instead, every device is assigned a unique code. Using Bluetooth, it shares that code with other phones running the app when they come into range, and records the signal strength (a rough proxy for how close another person is) and date for any such contact

The app is free, and uses only a small amount of data every day to check in with a central server. But it requires the power-hungry Bluetooth radio to be turned on, which makes for some battery drain.

The range of Bluetooth transmission can vary wildly depending on a range of factors, but is around 10 metres as a rule of thumb.

Anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus must type in a PIN number the department of health sends by SMS as part of the notification system for Covid-19 tests.

That triggers alerts for other people who were in close proximity, without disclosing the identity of the infected person or any other details.

In such a case "[a]pp users are guided as to what to do next to optimise their wellbeing and prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus to others," says the department of health.

Download South Africa's official Covid-19 tracing app on the Google Play Store for Android phones, or on the Apple App store for iPhones.

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