Ex-DICT official Rio questions efficacy of state-backed COVID-19 contact tracing app

Ian Nicolas Cigaral - Philstar.com
Ex-DICT official Rio questions efficacy of state-backed COVID-19 contact tracing app
This undated photo shows resigned DICT Undersecretary Eliseo Rio Jr.
The STAR / Geremy Pintolo, file

MANILA, Philippines — Former Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) Undersecretary Eliseo Rio on Wednesday warned the government against heavily depending on its official contact-tracing app StaySafe in battling the coronavirus pandemic, saying the app is not equipped with necessary features to cover millions of Filipinos.

This, as he reveals he was "eased out" of the DICT for pointing out the cons of using StaySafe in contact tracing efforts, a crucial step in isolating people who had exposure to an infected patient, and the app's supposed weak data privacy features.

In a Facebook post, Rio said he had to "break my silence" and reach out to the interagency task force (IATF) tackling the outbreak in the country to tell them that the government "would never be able to flatten this pandemic curve" if they will only rely on one app.

"Because its (StaySafe) technology needs smartphones 3G and above capable, we still have millions of Filipinos using 2G phones," Rio explained in a text message when sought for more details.

"The app also need mobile internet connectivity, of which 40% of the country has no or poor connectivity," he added.

StaySafe was developed by PLDT-backed local tech firm Multisys Technologies Corp. Malacañang in April announced that StaySafe.ph is the government's "official social distancing health condition reporting and contact tracing system." 

Among the IT experts and companies that offered their apps to the government to stem contagion, Rio said "only StaySafe was accepted by the IATF without any technical vetting."

Rio considered this as a problem, prompting him to propose the creation of a "Covid-19 Central Platform" that will "integrate and operationalize" all coronavirus-related data from different apps that will gather several information needed to respond to the health crisis.

But Rio said not only was his proposal was rejected by the IATF despite an endorsement from his boss, DICT Secretary Gregorio Honasa II, and Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., the chief implementer of the National Action Plan Against COVID-19, he was also told that President Duterte suddenly accepted his resignation that he filed four months ago.

"Going back to the morning of May 22, I calmly accepted the President’s decision but I knew then that it was this unreasoned interest on StaySafe that led to it," he wrote.

"However, at that time, I said to my self that StaySafe might become effective after all as a contact tracing app. But when movement of people became more free on June 1, I was so alarmed the the pandemic curve was rising steeply up than going down," he added.

"I hope IATF will listen this time."

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