While on a grocery run last Thursday evening, I received a disturbing notification on my smartphone.
When I clicked on it, my iPhone launched HaMagen (The Shield), an application released last month by the Health Ministry to help tamp down the growing COVID-19 pandemic by informing users if they crossed paths with someone who has been diagnosed with the virus.
“It appears your location has intersected with a person known to be infected with the coronavirus,” it informed me, listing a date, time and the name of a local mini-market.
Checking my credit card records, I realized that I had indeed been in the aforementioned store at that time and, following the app’s instructions, I went into immediate self-isolation.
I spent the following two days locked in my bedroom, waiting until Magen David Adom could send somebody to test me for the virus. They said it could take up to 72 hours.
It was an intensely frustrating experience and on Saturday evening, my wife encouraged me to double check the app’s determination. The Health Ministry maintains publicly available lists of locations visited by confirmed coronavirus patients, and when I looked at the data on its website I realized that the contact report that HaMagen had presented was decontextualized to the point of uselessness.
I had indeed been in a branch of the Shefa Bracha mini-market chain at the stated time but, according to the Health Ministry’s own website, not at the branch where a confirmed carrier had been. The app had delivered a false positive.
The app, downloaded by around 1.4 million Israelis, works by tracking its users via their phones’ built-in GPS, and correlating their location history (which is stored locally on the phone rather than shared with the government, so as to alleviate privacy concerns) with the epidemiological data of known COVID-19 cases.
When it was released, the ministry boasted in a statement that the app would allow Israelis to “stop the spread of the disease and protect those closest to us.”
However, as I discovered following my false alarm, the app has been plagued with early bugs that have hampered its usefulness. Several days after its launch, the ministry admitted as much, announcing that it was working to fix the problems and reminding users that they had the option of dismissing the alert as an error.
Not the only one
Other users have also reported problems.
“I got a notice from HaMagen that it appeared I had crossed paths with a COVID patient on April 3,” Ahava Cohen, a resident of the West Bank currently sheltering in place in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel.
Realizing that she had been at the location at a different time than reported by the app, she tapped to cancel the alert.
“I was concerned when I got the notification, but when I saw the hour I was more concerned about proving I was not there, if need be. I didn’t want to have anyone tell me I needed to be in quarantine when it was an error,” she said. “I was also concerned because I’m not entirely sure who has or will have access to the location history. I still use the app, but I do make sure I document other ways where I have gone so that I can prove false positives are indeed false.”
Arieh Kovler, a Jerusalem-based communications consultant, told The Times of Israel that he received false positives on four occasions.
“A few times the alert was for a supermarket right near my office [where I never go], so I immediately knew it might be a mistake,” he said. “Once it was for a supermarket that was a kilometer away, so I assumed it was correct until I carefully checked my movements and saw I didn’t go there that day.”
During the “first false alert I had this panic and dread of having to be in quarantine that I checked through carefully until I saw my movements didn’t intersect with the alert time and place. After that I dealt with it more calmly.”
When I asked about the app on social media, multiple users reported receiving false positives.
“Both [my wife] and I have each gotten a number of false reports,” one person responded. “At one point I got so many it was so annoying I just uninstalled the app. I have heard from many people that they are getting false reports.”
Part of the problem with HaMagen is that it relies on GPS for location data, which is accurate enough for navigation apps like Google Maps but falls short when it comes to the kind of pinpoint tracking necessary for identifying potential coronavirus patients, said one developer who had seen its source code online.
HaMagen is open source and the ministry has posted its code online and invited outside programmers to contribute to the project.
The ministry told The Times of Israel in a statement that it was aware of the complaints and acknowledged that “GPS location isn’t perfect especially in closed buildings.
“Due to the intensity of the situation,” the ministry said, HaMagen “is being updated consistently and quickly. In the beginning, we had run in to a number of issues due to the quick roll-out of the application, and these issues were fixed through updates.”
More good than harm?
However, even with its problems, HaMagen has done a lot of good, said Dr. Asher Shalmon, the director of the ministry’s International Relations Division.
“We identified a few thousand cases of people in close proximity with positive cases through this app and it enabled us to send them to home to self-quarantine,” he said, without specifying how many people have gone into isolation because of HaMagen.
“Countries from all over the world are asking if we can assist them in creating their own apps.”
Meanwhile, even with some of the current improvements, the app still has shortcomings on a conceptual level, said Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, the director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“The main issue is that in epidemiology we are talking about a virus and when you see symptomatic cases it’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said, explaining that research has begun to show that the vast majority of people carrying the coronavirus are asymptomatic and are able to spread the disease without their movements ever making it into the Health Ministry’s dataset.
“Contact tracing just based on symptomatic cases won’t solve our problems,” he told The Times of Israel. “If we are not testing enough, we are not going to catch people who were asymptomatic. HaMagen alone won’t be enough.”
While Israel is making progress, health authorities have had to contend with shortages of critical equipment necessary for wide-scale testing. On Wednesday night, the Health Ministry announced that it was continuing to increase its testing ability, saying that it had conducted 13,342 tests on Monday, up from the 12,281 it had initially declared, which itself would have been a single-day record.
Health experts have also called the government’s other tracking efforts into question.
Aside from the its app, the Health Ministry is also working with the Shin Bet security service on a separate, and highly controversial, electronic tracking program which has been challenged in the High Court of Justice, drawing a demand from the justices for proper oversight legislation. This program has also been reportedly plagued with errors, with Haaretz reporting in March that people had received text messages from the government requiring them to self-isolate even though they had not come into contact with anyone infected.
In a joint letter sent to the Knesset last week, the Israel Medical Association and Israel Association of Public Health Physicians called surveillance-based approaches to stemming the virus inefficient and noted that they do not address how to track asymptomatic patients.
“HaMagen could have been useful, despite the inherent problem of asymptomatic transmission (detailed in our statement) but other measures deployed, such as the use of the Shin Bet, may have harmed public trust,” Prof. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at the Hebrew University and head of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, told The Times of Israel.
There are also those within the government who appear to lack faith in HaMagen. According to Globes (Hebrew), when asked during a High Court hearing last week if there was a suitably non-invasive alternative to the Shin Bet’s surveillance program, a lawyer representing the State Attorney’s Office said that hundreds of thousands of users had uninstalled HaMagen.
The app, he said, produced too many errors and had too small of an install base to be a credible alternative.
‘Not tracking people’
The Health Ministry appears to be well aware of the public’s reservations about installing government-produced tracking software, which is why it brought in cybersecurity firm Profero to vet the app during development.
“The Health Ministry asked us to inspect the app and help them create an app that isn’t compromising privacy and helps the users,” said Profero CEO Omri Segev Moyal. “In no way is the data being shared with anyone.”
In fact, the ministry is not even able to track false positives because all the data is “on the device itself,” Health Ministry Chief Information Officer Rona Keiser told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview.
“Really we don’t want to track people. We want to make sure that people who may have been in contact with coronavirus patients go into isolation immediately and do not spread the disease.”
The ministry is well aware of the limitations of GPS technology and is currently working on a new revision of the app incorporating Bluetooth technology, “which is supposed to give us a much more accurate measurement,” she said.
The ministry is also aware of the problem of asymptomatic patients and is working on an update to the app to fix the problem. This update would allow people with COVID-19 to install the application after being diagnosed. The app would then access their prior movement data stored on the phone and give them the option, should they wish, to share it with medical investigators.
Asked about communities that generally eschew the use of smartphones, such as the ultra-Orthodox, Keiser responded that there is still the Shin Bet surveillance program but that the ministry’s goal was to improve the app to the point where it enjoys widespread adoption.
“If every citizen who has a smartphone downloads the app and gets a notification as soon as he comes across a patient and [then] goes into isolation, we can really stop the spread of the disease and have a much higher chance of succeeding in that,” she said.
“Our goal is between 4 and 6 million people downloading the app,” Keiser said, adding that despite initial setbacks, she believes that updated versions of HaMagen will be able to “contribute a lot in controlling the coronavirus’s spread.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.