Tracking App

13/05/2020 News

There is a lot to follow right now. One would be forgiven for forgetting that the problems surrounding the NHS tracking app, launched as a trial on the Isle of Wight two weeks ago, have very much not been resolved.

Ever since this crisis began, it has been clear, even to the most ardent of tech-sceptics, that technology will inevitably have to play a part in the global effort to defeat coronavirus. However, as with every other part of the increasing digitisation of our lives, it should never be a given that this requires us to sacrifice our privacy or our civil rights.

Tracking apps work by using Bluetooth signals to log when smartphone users are close to each other – so that if one of them develops coronavirus symptoms, an alert can be sent to people that they have been in close contact with. They have been a crucial part of the picture in countries (such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) that have dealt with the pandemic well.

The main argument now is about whether the app should be “centralised” or “decentralised”, with the former model storing users’ anonymised data in a central hub and the latter keeping it in the users’ phone. So far the UK has opted for the former.

Fair Vote UK is joining the many voices in calling for this decision to be reversed and a decentralised system adopted instead.

Privacy International and Open Rights Group have done a lot of good work detailing the app’s flaws but aside from the many problems associated with the current design – from battery draining to incompatibility with older phones – privacy is the main concern.

The news this week that the UK government has been striking deals with US tech giants to transfer NHS data should be all the evidence needed to convince anyone of the dangers of a centralised data bank.

These apps inevitably collect a lot of personal information. 

They will not be used if they are not trusted by the public.

Singapore used a centralised system early in the crisis but soon realised only 20% of the population were using it. Cases have since spiked in the country. Norway is still using a centralised system and usership similarly dawdles at 21%.

Realising the flaws, Germany, Australia, Colombia, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Spain have all joined Singapore in ditching centralisation in favour of decentralisation.

Yet again the UK is in the position to look at other countries and learn from their example – we should not make the same mistake again!