The NHS Covid-19 tracking app goes into trial on the Isle of Wight this week
Despite privacy and effectiveness concerns, the government’s Covid-19 tracking app is due to go into trial on the Isle of Wight today (as I write this on Thursday 7th May). This area has been chosen for the trial as it is covered by a single NHS trust. The fact that it is an island will also no doubt help in tracking contacts of people showing symptoms. The cynic in me wonders if that will help the government “prove” its effectiveness.
The app uses bluetooth technology to record on a smartphone the ID number of other smartphones that have been in close range. The ID numbers are randomly generated and contain no personal information. The app records how long the phones were in range of each other and the strength of the signal (which ought to correlate with the proximity of the phones to each other and, therefore, the risk of infection). At this point, there is no personal information collected.
The idea is that if a person using the app feels that they may be developing symptoms of Covid-19 then they record this in the app. The app then notifies the NHS and the app of those phones that have been in contact recently. Which phones get notified and what action the app recommends, is governed by an algorithm that assesses the risk and what to do. At this point, the identity of the person with symptoms needs to be recorded. If a test proves positive, then an “army” of 18,000 human “tracers” can be invoked to help in the process of finding who else to trace, inform, and advise.
There are huge concerns about the use of this technology. These centre around its effectiveness and the potential massive invasion of personal privacy.
I have seen figures (quoted by the BBC, I think) that say that 80% of smartphone owners need to use the app if it is to make a significant impact on the spread of the virus. There is doubt that this many people would use it. Also, there is nothing to compel a user to report their symptoms even if they have installed the app, and there is nothing to compel notified app users to follow the advice they are given. Who wants to get a beep on their phone telling them to go home immediately and isolate for 14 days on the strength of some random incident of getting close to someone maybe weeks ago? And what if it’s the third or fourth time it’s happened and you didn’t develop symptoms during your previous periods of isolation? At some point, you are going to say “Stuff this for a game of soldiers” and carry on with your day.
The issue of invasion of privacy is potentially much bigger, but that particular horse may have already bolted. This specific app does not ask for personal information in order to use it (except fhe first half of the user’s postcode). Personal data is only required at the stage of reporting symptoms. The fear, though, is that this technology could be expanded to keep close surveillance on anyone in the population in terms of who they associate with, where, when, and for how long. At this stage, it is difficult to see how the current technology could be “uninvented”, so it is difficult to see how avoiding its use now would prevent its potential abuse in the future.
Google and Apple have been jointly working on a similar app that does not involve a centralised database. The app from NHSX (the digital arm of the NHS) does not work like that: it sucks in data to its own central database. This is seen by many as, potentially, a threat to privacy.
Personally, this app gives me the creeps in the same kind of way that Facebook gives me the creeps – because of the privacy concerns. I also doubt that it will work well enough for enough people to continue to use it until an effective vaccine is available. Would I use it? In my last blog post, I accepted that compromises are necessary in these strange times. Another compromise that I have made in this respect is that I have always paid cash in my supermarket as I don’t want Sainsburys linking all my purchases through my visa card. However, Sainsburys now say that I must either use a card or check my own purchases out, and that is also something I won’t do until the very last checkout assistant has gone. So, it was either starve or use a card. I chose the card.
Likewise, if Boris said to me “David, you old stick-in-the-mud, you can either go outside and earn a living, but you have to use this tracking app, or you can moulder away inside your flat in lockdown for eternity”, then I would use it.
By the time you read this, it may all be resolved one way or another, but at the moment it isn’t. So, what will I do? I will certainly not use the app from day one unless it’s the only way I can get out of lockdown. If it looks as if it’s not going to enjoy the number of users needed to make it effective then I will not use it. If it looks like being a potential winner in helping to defeat covid-19 (at least in part because enough people before me have decided to use it), then I will use it.
And to think, it’s not yet six months since life was simple and all we had to worry about was Brexit.
PS: why haven’t they given it a nice, catchy, product name like “catch-a-bug” or “coronavirus-chasing-is-us”?