Ex-DICT Usec. Rio says he was ‘eased out’ after questioning gov’t-backed contact tracing app

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 7) — Former Department of Information and Communications Technology undersecretary Eliseo Rio said that he was “eased out” of his post after pointing out the limitations of government-backed contact tracing app StaySafe.ph.

Rio said in a lengthy Facebook post on Sunday that he had been in talks with COVID-19 response chief implementor Carlito Galvez Jr. to persuade the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to take a look at other contact tracing applications.

“We actually need more players in the common interest of providing the contact tracing; to be inclusive rather than exclusive,” Rio said.

He said Galvez had proposed to the IATF for the National Task Force against COVID-19 to form an Information System Task Group which would assess COVID-19 contact tracing apps, among other things. The proposed task group would have been headed by Rio.

However, Rio said the IATF shelved Galvez’s proposal.

“Not only was this proposal of Secretary Galvez disregarded by IATF, I was eased out from the government at this crucial time with the President accepting my four-month old resignation,” Rio said.

Rio resigned from his post as undersecretary for operations in February, due to conflicting views with other officials in the agency, including the millions of pesos in confidential funds lodged with the DICT.

His resignation, however, was only accepted in May. When asked by CNN Philippines why President Rodrigo Duterte only accepted his resignation then, he laughingly replied, "I don't know nga, baka may nakabangga ako?"

[Translation: I don't know why, maybe I clashed with someone?]

StaySafe.ph limited?

The IATF adopted StaySafe.ph as the country’s “official social-distancing, health-condition-reporting, and contact-tracing system that will assist in the government’s response to COVID-19.”

It was designed to help medical frontliners, local government units, private companies, as well as the national government, to monitor the health condition of residents and conduct more efficient contact tracing.

But Rio said StaySafe.ph, developed for free by software solutions company MultiSys, fails as a contact tracing app.

“It just generates a database of cell phone numbers with their location, useful for surveillance purposes of people who reported themselves with symptoms, but of little value to people who report themselves as healthy,” he said.

He also said that the app will work on phones that use at least 3G and only in areas with mobile internet connectivity.

He added that for contact tracing through mobile phones to work, at least 60 percent of all subscribers, or around 70 million, should be using the app. As of writing, only 1,043,155 users have a registered account with StaySafe.ph.

He said there should be more than just one app for contact tracing in the Philippines, so more subscribers could be included, especially those who are still using 2G phones or do not have access to the internet.

“It must be a combination of manual contact tracing, and various apps now available that can be used even with 2G phones,” Rio explained.

On Sunday, the Philippines reached a grim milestone as the death toll due to COVID-19 topped 1,000. Coronavirus cases in the country rose to 21,895, while recoveries rose to 4,530.