Thousands of smartphone users have downloaded Malta’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, designed to facilitate the process of finding more people who might have been close to an infected person.

Launched on Friday, the app has already been downloaded more than 10,000 times on Android devices. Figures for Apple users are expected to be available later in the week.

A spokesperson for the Malta Information Technology Agency (MITA) told Times of Malta the app has already had a “positive impact” and that there has been a “good download take-up”.

But how does the app work?

One of the researchers who was part of the team of developers behind the app, Judie Attard, said one of the most important elements of the tool is that it does not collect any personal data.

Quashing fears the app will ‘know’ where a person has been and store such data, Attard said the only information gathered is whether two people have been in contact for more than 15 minutes at a distance of less than two metres.

Based on what is known as proximity tracing, users must follow a series of steps the first time they install the app and then let it run in the background.

The user is informed about the app’s uses, with an important reminder that it is solely used for contact tracing and in no way protects against the virus.  This next part involves allowing the phone to send notifications if there is a potential contact with a COVID-19 patient. This function was recently made available to users in Malta.

At this point, the app is up and running, sharing anonymous proximity codes [a series of numbers that change regularly] with other phones that have the app installed.

Attard likens the way the app works to sharing business cards.

“Imagine a business card with no personal data but just a logo. People share business cards every time they meet. If a person is identified as COVID-19 positive, the patient uses the code given by the health authorities so that this ‘personal logo’ can be uploaded to a database.

“All the other people would download the list of ‘logos’ and compare them to their own set business cards which they have been collecting whenever they are out and about.

“If they have a match, then that means the person might have been exposed.”

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