The NHS has released the source code behind its coronavirus contact-tracing app, that is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight.
The beta app has also been tested at a Royal Air Force base in North Yorkshire, and the app has also been published to Apple and Google’s app stores, but is effectively hidden from the general public at the moment.
The NHS app has been developed by NHSX – the health service’s digital innovation unit – and now the source code has been published to GitHub to allow scrutiny from others.
The publishing of the source code comes amid concern over the app’s privacy and effectiveness.
When someone tests positive for Covid-19, human contact tracers look to track down whom the patient has been in contact with and isolate them.
The app uses Bluetooth signals to detect and log other phones with a compatible app in the vicinity. When a person develops a confirmed case, the app alerts those who have come into contact with the individual.
But the NHS’ “centralised” approach has come under fire for exposing users to privacy risks and, as a result, potentially making people less willing to use the software.
Matters were not helped for privacy campaigners when it was confirmed that GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) had been granted extra powers to obtain security data from NHS systems, in order to better protect it from outside threats.
The NHS app processes anonymised data on a central server, allowing the NHS to track trends in the way the virus is spreading and to detect hotspots.
That approach contrasts to the “decentralised” approach adopted by many other countries, where all data processing is carried out on the devices themselves.
Apple and Google are developing a decentralised technology that is to be built into iOS and Android devices, and the method has been widely adopted across Europe and elsewhere.
France and Japan are two notable exceptions, with both countries opting to employ centralised servers.
According to the BBC, more than 40,000 people have installed the smartphone software so far.
And it seems that tests carried out on behalf of BBC News confirm the developers have found a way to work round restrictions Apple places on the use of Bluetooth in iPhones.
Apple limits the extent to which third-party apps can use Bluetooth when they are off-screen and running in the background. That said, Apple has promised to relax this rule for contact-tracing apps that use a decentralised system it is co-developing with Google.
Another development has also seen Health Secretary Matt Hancock appoint Baroness Dido Harding to head up the test, track and trace programme.
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