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New Zealand releases Bluetooth-free COVID-19 tracing app

'Digital diary' with QR-code check-ins for now, wireless-capable upgrade in the works

The New Zealand government has released a new digital check-in tool to enable Kiwis to keep a digital log of their movements.

The new app, called "NZ COVID Tracer", works by letting users scan QR codes at the businesses, public building and other organisations they visit. It then provides users with a "check-in" history, so they can more easily track their own movements.

The app also registers users' contact information so that country's COVID-19 tracing team, the National Close Contact Service (NCCS), can contact them if necessary.

"This is what I would describe as a digital diary," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a press conference on Monday. "Helping users when they're out about to keep log of their own movements, for instance, between cafes and restaurants. That's obviously something those businesses are doing themselves, but this is a way that people can do it that keeps the data for themselves."

"It's just in case in the future you find yourself with COVID-19, you've got an easy reference to tell where you've been over a period of time. This is a tool that aids contact tracing."

"It is intended to aid and support physical contact tracing efforts, not to replace them by any means," she said.

The app will store location data locally and delete it after 31 days, according to an FAQ on the New Zealand Ministry of Health website. Users can also request to delete all their location data, but will not be able to delete individual locations.

Personal information, such as the user's name and contact details, will be shared with the NCCS "so we can quickly get in touch if you are identified as a close contact of someone who has COVID-19. This information is held for public health purposes only and will never be shared with any agencies outside the health sector."

The data will be stored by Amazon Web Services, as part of a 2017 government-wide agreement. "Any information an NZ COVID Tracer user chooses to share for contact tracing is encrypted before it is sent to the Ministry via the AWS cloud services platform. The Ministry retains control of the decryption keys" the FAQ said.

The new app debuts as New Zealand further eases restrictions. People can meet in groups of ten and travel domestically. Businesses can open with social distancing in place but must keep a register of all their customers, including their name, phone number, and email address.

The new app does not replace the manual lists that businesses must keep, according to the FAQ page.

But experts have criticised the app for not offering much benefit to the user. "It doesn't replace the check-in systems to businesses or even allow you to automatically send your history to the contact tracing team, although this was promised. I found the interface to set up rather clunky and I suspect a lot of people will give it up," Professor Dave Parry, head of computer science at Auckland University of Technology told the New Zealand Herald.

Ardern has previously said that the government would add Bluetooth-enabled tracing similar to that used in Australia in later iterations of the app. She did not clarify whether this would be included as a separate or all-in-one solution. ®

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