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MyTrace: Does Malaysia’s contact tracing app track your location?

As the country (and the rest of the world) continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of contact tracing has become increasingly apparent. Previously, the Malaysian government launched MySejahtera, a tracing app that had assessment tools, updates, and the ability to check in with your location and assessment results.

Now, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) has announced yet another contact tracing app: MyTrace. While the aim is also to help authorities detect and trace cluster infections of COVID-19, the new app is significantly different from MySejahtera.

How does MyTrace work?

According to Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, the MyTrace app will play an important role in close contact tracing—especially once the Movement Control Order is loosened or lifted.

Contact tracing is done via Bluetooth technology, where supported mobile devices can help authorities to detect who an infected individual may have come into contact with. According to Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob:

“When mobile phone users with MyTrace are near each other, the Bluetooth waves can detect their presence. Based on the strength of the Bluetooth waves detected, the distance and period of their meeting can be determined.”

This is something similar to what our neighbours to the south, Singapore have done with their own Trace Together app—the app notified people if someone they came in close contact with had contracted the coronavirus.

It doesn’t appear that the MyTrace app will do the same thing, although the fundamentals are the same. In fact, Ismail Sabri—just like Khairy Jamaluddin before him—mentions that the app does not collect location information from its users.

“The data collected will be kept for 21 days in the handphones of users.

“Contact tracing is very important to enable us to know who has gone near a person identified as Covid-19 positive.”

So, is location tracking really not used?

However, it appears that location technology could still be utilised by the app whenever it is on. When using MyTrace for the first time, the app requests for location permissions, while the homepage requires users to turn on both Bluetooth and Location on their devices.

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Additionally, the app listing on the Google Play Store also discloses that the current version of the app may request access to location, although this access is limited to “foreground”activity.

While location technology could theoretically be used to further narrow down a search in any potential contact tracing cases, this contradicts with what Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said previously:

The screenshot posted in the Tweet above was a beta version of the app, and there was no “location” icon requirement, unlike the official version. Additionally, the location symbol does not appear in the status bar (like it does with Google Maps/Waze) when the app is open. When you turn both Bluetooth and location on, the app tells you:

“Rest assured that your location information is NOT collected in this app.”

It’s worth noting that countries such as South Korea have used location tracking to help contain the coronavirus pandemic, although ethical concerns over privacy issues have been raised.

In Malaysia, the authorities are aiming for 60 percent of smartphone users in the country to use the MyTrace application. This is all a part of continued attempts to “break the chain of infection as soon as possible”.

At the moment, MyTrace is only available for Android devices on the Google Play Store, although the iOS version should be available soon. The app isn’t meant to replace the MySejahtera app; instead, MyTrace will complement the app to better help authorities.

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Meanwhile, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has also launched Gerak Malaysia, which is also a contact tracing app. The location-based tech is currently being used by the Royal Malaysia Police to manage limited interstate travel, and has over 1 million downloads; 462,505 applications for interstate travel have been received over the app.

As of the 3rd of May 2020, there have been a total of 6,298 confirmed cases in Malaysia, with 105 reported deaths due to COVID-19. The nation is currently under a Movement Control Order, although operations for certain industries have been allowed to resume today with precautions and safety protocols supposedly in place.

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