As privacy concerns grow over contact-tracing technology, a new monitoring system funded under the European Open Science Cloud initiative, will allow users with strong symptoms of coronavirus to take full ownership of their personal data while participating in their national track-and-trace scheme.

The EOSC Secretariat – an initiative that has approved €1,235,000 in emergency funding for 32 projects to specifically tackle the COVID-19 pandemic – is supporting the new app that aims to improve contact tracing while simultaneously maintaining privacy.

Concerns that digital tracing systems for COVID-19 could become ‘back doors’ to mass surveillance have already mounted, with academics from 26 countries issuing a warning that contact-tracing apps could hamper trust.

Confirming you have been infected with coronavirus requires personal data to be submitted, recorded, exchanged and stored, with some apps like the UK Government’s NHSX indicating that it may be stored and used for future research purposes.

However, a small research team has developed a contact-tracing app in the space of a few months, with backing provided as part of the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC). The EU initiative aims to change the way research is conducted through ‘Open Science’ where researchers are busy developing instant diagnoses for major diseases and tackling climate change.

Developed by Limerick brothers Paul and Patrick Byrnes, the app invites users to participate via an ‘opt-in’ facility, which can be removed or deleted at any time, and is available to download on iOS, Android and Apple.

Pictured (l-r): Patrick Byrnes, Research, Development and Innovation manager, Pat Breen, former Minister of State for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection, Dr Paul Byrnes – Data Scientist at TLA (Liverpool), and Tom Kelly, Divisional Manager (Cleantech, Electronics and Life Sciences) at Enterprise Ireland.

Described by its creators as “less invasive to your personal data than Alexa”, the application allows users with strong symptoms of coronavirus to take full ownership of their personal data while track-and-tracing. The goal of the project is build up a picture of local infection clusters so that targeted regions can be restricted rather than having a blanket ban.

The new Tracing Ireland’s Population (TIP) app is different to existing contact-tracing apps. TIP gives users ownership of their data, places them in full control of any track and tracing (rather than an automated programme collecting and storing your information to be used at a later date), and hosts all information in encrypted form.

Co-creator, Dr Paul Byrnes said: “Alexa will invade your privacy more than our app does. Like many contact-tracing systems hoping to end blanket lockdowns by providing an accurate, targeted picture of infections, our new facility looks set to enable smaller, localised restrictions.

“The success of any contact-tracing app depends on whether people will engage with it, and if they don’t trust it, they won’t use it. It’s that simple. Once the pandemic is over, all data will be erased.”

Many tracing apps such as TraceTogether used in Singapore communicate with copies of themselves on nearby devices over Bluetooth. When a user confirms they have been infected with COVID-19, everyone who has been close to that person’s phone will get a notification that they may have the virus.