Will UK’s tracing app be another blunder in the coronavirus fight?
Britain is bucking the trend by adopting its own model instead of the one supported by Google and Apple
London — The UK took its own route into a coronavirus lockdown, and now appears to be pursuing its own route out as well, developing a contact-tracing phone app that works differently from those favoured by many other countries.
The app, rolled out for trial on the Isle of Wight on Thursday, is central to the efforts of Boris Johnson’s government to end the restrictions that have shut down much of the British economy. If people can be quickly isolated after they’ve come into contact with an infected person, others can be allowed to go about their lives.
But success depends on the app working, and on very large numbers of people trusting the government with their data. Privacy campaigners and data scientists warn that the UK is putting both of those at risk by adopting its own model, rather than the one supported by Alphabet’s Google and Apple.
“The National Health Service (NHS) does not have a good record with this — moving really fast, nimbly, understanding technology,” said Neil Bacon, a doctor and founder of information-sharing networks Doctors.net.uk and iWantGreatCare.org. “People are right to raise more than an eyebrow when they see that the NHS is going left and Google, Apple, and most of the world is going right.”
From initially resisting calls for a lockdown to failing to join an EU effort to buy much-needed personal protective equipment, the UK has gone its own way during the pandemic, with questionable results. Britain is now the European country with the highest level of Covid-19 deaths.
With the US, Germany, Italy and others leaning towards the model supported by the American tech giants, some academics, legislators and members of the public have suggested Britain could be making another misstep.
A spokesperson for the department of health and social care didn’t respond after repeated requests for comment.
Both the UK and other countries’ approaches use Bluetooth on smartphones to detect and keep track of who a person meets — raising questions about privacy. Tracing apps supported by Apple and Google try to mitigate those risks by using a “decentralised” model that keeps the contact information on an individual’s phone.
Under this approach, each phone regularly checks in with a central server to determine whether it has been near someone on an anonymous list of users who have tested positive for Covid-19. If it has, the owner is notified.
The UK argues this misses the opportunity to study how the virus is spread, and is proposing a “centralised” model. With its method, a user who develops coronavirus symptoms presses a button on the app, which then uploads its record of contacts to a central server. Those are then decrypted and messages are sent to each affected person.
Matthew Gould, CEO of the health service’s digital arm, NHSX, which is developing the app, pointed out the benefits of the British model when he appeared before a parliamentary committee on May 4. It allows scientists to get more information about how the virus spreads.
“We are balancing privacy with the need for the public health authorities to get insight into what symptoms subsequently lead to people testing positive,” he said.
The British set-up would also make it easier to inform people if their contact who showed symptoms subsequently tested negative for the virus.
But the merits of a centralised model could be outweighed if they come at the cost of trust, even though the UK app never asks for a user’s name.
“This is essentially usable as a surveillance system. I’m not saying they intend to use it as that, but they could use it as that,” said Mark Ryan, a professor in computer security at the University of Birmingham. “What I would really like to see is a much clearer statement about how this data can be used, how it’s being siloed from other databases, and what kind of end they can promise” to its use.
Forging its own path also raises technical questions because it cuts the UK off from tight integration into Apple and Google’s operating systems. There are doubts about how well the app will work, whether it will be active when the screen is off, and whether it will start automatically when the phone reboots.
The app is being built for the NHS by VMware Pivotal Labs, a software development consultancy that is part of VMware Inc. Several other organisations are actively helping the NHS to develop and test the app.
The UK government began discussing the app in early March. At that point, scientists and ministers were resisting calls for a full lockdown, instead talking up the benefits of allowing the infection to spread among low-risk groups to develop “herd immunity”. Authorities were also insisting that the UK’s low capacity to test people for the virus wasn’t a serious issue.
Those early misjudgments have since been reversed: herd immunity was dropped, and testing dramatically ramped up. As Britons begin emerging from lockdown, experts say getting contact tracing right the first time is crucial.
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