Public support vital to contact tracing apps: Can NHSx provide this?

AS businesses and people prepare for an easing of the lockdown, it becomes more important than ever that we have the right tools to prevent transmission from rising as a result.

A contact tracing app promises to perform this role: People log their symptoms or diagnosis onto an application that warns other uses if and how much they have been exposed to infected individuals.

NHSx, in charge of developing the UK’s social distancing app has taken a contentious approach to their software. Unlike the solutions implemented across large parts of Asia and Europe, the version trialled last week on the Isle of Wight utilises central databases that threatens the data security of the users.

Most tools used internationally store such data locally to the phone to give the user control over its use and release.

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 16.08.29
Image: Pixabay

Centralised systems have been criticised by data rights groups because anonymising personal data is a largely reversible process that cannot be achieved simply by filing off the names attached to a series of contacts and locations.

Privacy International, in a recently published technical analysis, identified a loophole in the NHSx app that could enable authorities excessive access to location information through users phones. Where Bluetooth was presented as the less intrusive alternative to GPS contact tracing, users are given no ability to opt-out of third party trackers that are bundled into the app, potentially circumventing these security measures.

Other groups raise concerns over the ability of contact tracing apps to normalise surveillance technology. Even a decentralised system will normalise the concept of your phone logging all social interactions and travels.

Something seemingly nonpartisan such as a contact tracing app will disproportionately affect certain groups.

As Dr Mercedes Bunz of Kings College London put it, “false positives hurt some more than others.” An office worker advised to go on furlough leave will suffer much less than a cashier forced onto SSP, and the cashier is more likely to receive a false positive. The technological solutions produced by any society will almost invariably reinforce the social and economic inequalities that society is entrenched in.

The NHSx app has been accused of containing operational flaws that call into question its effectiveness. These range from the app failing on apple devices, excessive battery usage, and large numbers of false alerts.

Isle of Wight users encountered issues simply installing the application and private testing has revealed older phones to be unsupported by the software.  None of the myriad issues the app faced in the first week of its testing have inspired public confidence in the app, something that will be key to its functionality once rolled out nationally.

Make no mistake: the UK needs a contact tracing app. According to Christophe Fraser of Oxfords Big Data institute, traditional contact tracing solutions are too slow for the scale of the coronavirus and we need instead a fast and effective mobile application to fulfil such a role. The big data institute has gone on to create epidemiological models for the impact of contract tracing apps.

Their research suggests a 60% threshold of app users among the population is key to keeping transmission below epidemic levels, assuming that social distancing and other practises are properly enforced. Lower user numbers will have a partial effect but fail at containing the spread to a great enough extent.

The ability for the UK to meet a 60% usage rate for the app is questionable. 40 million UK citizens installing the app, keeping it running and inputting their symptoms regularly enough for the data to be useable.

The development plans for the app have been challenged within the government, by data privacy organisations and the wider public. Even a newly constructed app using the Apple-Google software API (something NHSx is working on) is unlikely to solve all the issues the app has encountered, and it’s questionable whether new version will incite the public support needed.

The NHSx app constitutes another failed attempt at capturing the spirit of English Exceptionalism, aiming to prove our independence from European Institutions, American tech companies, or even the opensource apps published by the likes of Singapore’s GovTech.

The UK needs a contact tracing app, but this doesn’t mean that we need an English contact tracing app.


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