Coronavirus: British Covid-19 Tracing App Ready In 3 Weeks

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The NHS confirms its coronavirus tracing app will be ready in two to three weeks, but concerns remain over its approach to privacy

The first version of the NHS Coronavirus tracing app will be ready in two to three weeks, it has emerged.

The development was revealed by Matthew Gould, the NHS chief responsible for the app, speaking to a committee of MPs. The health secretary Matt Hancock also confirmed the app’s delivery timeframe during the Government’s daily Coronavirus briefing on Tuesday.

But there remains some privacy concerns, after the NHS recently said its coronavirus tracing app would not use a technical architecture set to be released by Apple and Google this week.

coronavirus Image credit: World Health Organisation
Image credit: World Health Organisation

Centralised server

Researchers have previously stated that virus contact tracing apps, which alert users when they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, must be installed by some 60 percent of the population to be effective.

Testing of the app is currently being carried out at an RAF base.

The NHS has stated that it wants to use anonymised data stored on a central server in order to help adapt the app to changing conditions, as well as to gather information on where the virus is spreading.

But that approach differs from the decentralised technology being developed by Apple and Google, which never sends data to a remote server.

Apple and Google of course are jointly developing an API for their respective mobile operating systems that could assist governments in tracking the spread of Covid-19 through the use of the Bluetooth technology built into smartphones.

The NHS approach is to store users’ data on their phones to ensure privacy, but carries out contact matches on a server.

By contrast, Apple and Google’s decentralised method stores data on the device, and any data is stored on external servers – Apple and Google have promised this data will be anonymised and could not be linked to a specific individual.

Other countries are adopting various approaches.

France last week confirmed that it was seeking to ease Google’s and Apple’s strict limits on what data can be sent back to public health authorities.

France still plans to use central servers for its contact-tracing app, but Germany will use a decentralised architecture, as will Switzerland, Estonia and Austria.

NHS app

Now according to the BBC, the NHS app will log the location of whenever two or more people are in close proximity for minutes at a time, potentially triggering privacy worries.

However, NHSX – the health service’s digital innovation unit – told the BBC this extra request will be “opt in” rather than the default setting.

Gould from the NHSX told the Science and Technology Committee the app would be “technically ready” for deployment in “two to three weeks.”.

“If you want to protect the NHS and stop it being overwhelmed and, at the same time, want to get the economy moving, then the app is going to be part of an essential part of a strategy for doing that,” he reportedly said.

Gould reportedly told the committee there was a false dichotomy, where decentralised was seen as private and centralised was not.

And the NHS approach “allows you to do certain important things that you couldn’t do if it was just phone-to-phone propagation.”

Meanwhile, Prof Christophe Fraser, whose advice has been crucial to the app’s design, reportedly told the committee only a centralised approach would give epidemiologists visibility into how effective the app was proving to be and the means to calibrate it further.

Both Gould and the professor stressed any data collected would be anonymous.

But Gould said “it would be very useful epidemiologically” – potentially identifying hotspots where “the virus was propagating” – if, in a update to the app, people voluntarily revealed where their proximity contacts had happened.

And it is not clear whether those they had had the contact with would have any choice about being tracked in a way that could end up creating a huge database of the movements of millions of people.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock during the Government’s daily Coronavirus briefing said he intended for 18,000 human contact tracers, whose work will complement the software, to be in place “before or at the same time as the app”.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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