Israel Unveils Open Source App to Warn Users of Coronavirus Cases

App launch comes after decision to track coronavirus patients’ visited locations ■ Health Ministry promises movements won’t be otherwise traced

A new Israeli app can instantly tell users if they have crossed paths with someone known to have been infected with the coronavirus. 

On Sunday, the country’s health ministry unveiled the app, called “The Shield”(“HaMagen”, in Hebrew.) The app takes location data from the user’s phone and compares it with the information in Health Ministry servers regarding the location histories of confirmed cases during the 14 days before their diagnosis. 

A screen capture from the Health Ministrys coronavirus app.

Should there be a match, the app user will be notified and given the option of reporting their exposure to the Health Ministry by filling out a form. The Health Ministry has promised users that this process is strictly voluntary, that the information on the app is secure and that the movements of users won’t be otherwise mined by the government to trace the movements of citizens who aren’t known to be infected with the virus

If the app does not detect the user having been exposed, it informs them that “according to data collected thus far, no points of intersection have been found with coronavirus patients.”

Until now, the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus have been published on the ministry’s website and its Telegram channel – but assessing whether one might have come into contact with a person who was infected involved hours of scrolling through information. The app – available for both Apple and Android phones – does it instantly. 

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While many may be skeptical of the government’s assurances of privacy, given its decision to track the location data of coronavirus patients, or worried about  vulnerability to hacking, Ran Bar-Zik, a full stack developer at Verizon and Haaretz’s tech journalist, said that the government “has done it right this time. As far as I can assess, the application is safe to use.”

While much government computer infrastructure in the past has been easily hackable and full of bugs of which he has been highly critical in the past, Bar-Zik said, this particular application has been built correctly. It was developed, he said, “with the participation of world-renowned experts, recognized in the world of internet security …  the Health Ministry has done everything they can to provide a secure application to the public in Israel.”  

Leading the development of the secure code was Omri Segev Moyal of Profero, a malware analyst and threat intelligence expert. 

“No code is perfect,” Bar-Zik said. “But this time, maximum effort seems to have been made to prevent problems,” so much so that he suggests the Shield “can be used as a model for other governments in the world.”  

To that end, the code for the application has already been made available to experts in the field and will soon be made available to the general public. 

Bar-Zik was invited to comment on the code, which was uploaded to GitHub, an online repository of free to use and share bits of code. “Using open source can contribute significantly to improving security and transparency and ensuring privacy,” he says. “Any security expert and programmer can now examine the code, find and even fix any problematic features that the developers may have missed – and even close any security breaches that exist.”