Success of contact tracing apps will depend on how many Kiwis sign up - technology expert

As New Zealand heads into day-13 of its nationwide lockdown and perhaps, just perhaps, we can start to imagine once again what post-lockdown life might be like, there is renewed talk of using technology to help keep COVID-19 under control.

In particular, there is debate over whether New Zealand should follow other countries' lead and use phone apps to help with the task of contact tracing.

One country to have done such a thing is Singapore, where a free app called Trace Together is credited in part with keeping the nation's COVID-19 cases to a relative minimum. 

Paul Spain, founder and chief executive of Gorilla Technology says app-based contact tracing "looks like a really good approach".

Although many have expressed concerns over whether allowing apps to monitor citizens' locations gives authorities too much power, Spain says Trace Together doesn't appear to cross the line in that respect.

"Privacy is a really important aspect when we're using this kind of technology, and it seems to be at the most private end of the scale. It doesn't expose a whole lot of information in general outside to anyone else, so it really comes into play if somebody gets exposed  - then they communicate to that person though this app and get that message out into the community," Spain told The Am Show on Tuesday.

The primary advantage of having apps that monitor where we have been is that they gain much more information than humans.

"This is probably a good use-case for technology. It's going to have information an individual might not have," says Spain. "If you ask somebody who they're in close contact with, they might be able to say 'well I went to the supermarket on this day' or 'I went for a walk in the local park for some exercise on a particular time and day' but that doesn't necessarily tell you who they got close it."

An app, in contrast, not only knows where you have been, but it also has precise information on what exact time you went there and who else was in the area.

The Trace Together app works through the exchange of short-distance Bluetooth signals between app users, providing a database that officials can draw on.

Success of contact tracing apps will depend on how many Kiwis sign up - technology expert

An app-based approach can only be successful, however, if everyone comes on board, says Spain.

"For it to work, we would really need to encourage people to install it - it's effectiveness would come down to having a big chunk of the population getting it installed."

On Monday, the Government admitted it was looking into using apps to make contact tracing easier.

Officials were seeing how other countries - such as Singapore - were using technology to help in the battle against COVID-19.

"Technology is going to be part of the solution... Technology will be our friend as we try and find ways to make sure we've got tight, accurate contract tracing," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told RNZ.

"Some countries are using anonymised data so they can tell how many people you were in close proximity to but they won't necessarily always be able to tell you who that was.

"It's about working with those technological solutions but also overcoming some of those issues around people's privacy and building a system that New Zealanders are willing to use."

Despite the benefits, many around the world - including in Singapore - have criticised governments for using the COVID-19 crisis to increase surveillance on their citizens. 

The privacy issue is most likely the biggest hurdle facing widespread use of the system here and only time will tell whether Kiwis' concerns over tracing the virus outweigh their concerns that they themselves are being tracked.