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The NZ Covid Tracer app
The NZ Covid Tracer app

SocietyDecember 9, 2020

Covid Tracer app gets a major bluetooth upgrade – but QR check-in remains key

The NZ Covid Tracer app
The NZ Covid Tracer app

An update to the NZ Covid Tracer app today adds bluetooth functionality, allowing your phone to automatically track other app users you’re near to.

New Zealand’s Covid tracer app is getting a significant new feature tomorrow with the incorporation of bluetooth tracking. The additional tool on the app doesn’t replace your daily practice of scanning QR codes but it means that along with tracking where you’re going, the app will now track who you’re close to.

“As summer approaches and Kiwis take holidays and travel more around the country, this new bluetooth functionality adds to the tools we already have and improves our chances of getting on top of any potential outbreak quickly. As long as we use them,” Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said in a statement.

How will this work?

The bluetooth part of the app will be using notification software developed by Apple and Google that allows for smartphones to have an automatic check-in when they are close to each other. Every phone will be represented by a random code, known as a key. When phones get close to each other, they remember the key and keep a tally of all the phones you’ve been near.

What happens if I get sick?

It’s not that different from how the app works now. When someone comes down with Covid-19, they send the contents of their app to the health ministry. Contact tracers can then send out warnings to people who have checked-in at those places. With this upgrade, they can also send warnings to people you’ve been near.

When an alert goes out all the apps across the country check if they’ve got one of the infected keys on file. If they don’t, you hear nothing. If they do, you’ll get a message from the health ministry on what to do next.

It’s not clear from the government’s release about the addition of bluetooth how long or close you need to be near someone for that to count as a contact.

Who gets to know where I’ve been?

No one, according to the government. Hipkins says all the new bluetooth data will remain on your phone and the office of the privacy commissioner has given the app its approval. Only you choose when you want to share your data with contact tracers.

Google and Apple should never get any data from the app. It also won’t track your location, just all the other people with the app running. Your random key won’t have any personal information about you in it. It’s, you know, random.

Do I need to use the new bluetooth feature?

No. You’ll be asked, probably tomorrow when you open up your app, if you’d like to turn on the bluetooth option. If you say no, your app will keep working the way it always has. Keep scanning those posters.

Will it drain my battery?

There have been some reports overseas that some bluetooth-based Covid apps have been battery hogs. It’s a real disincentive to use the app, so the government is promising New Zealand’s app will use a low energy version of bluetooth that should be easy on your battery. But it also seems concerned that some phones might act oddly with bluetooth, so if your energy bar starts draining, email

The app will be running in the background, so you also don’t need to worry about keeping it on.

Will it work on all phones?

No. The government’s best guess is that 90% of the 2.4 million registered app users won’t have any problems. However, if about half of the country turns on the bluetooth tracing component of the app, that will be a critical mass of people checking-in with each other all the time, which is what this new part of the app needs to be really successful.

Only phones running iOS 13.5 or newer, or Android 6.0 or newer will work.

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