The government announces a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app

Tech giants Apple and Google have also revealed their collaboration which will provide the foundation for such apps, available in mid-May.

Update [5/5/2020]: The NHS has begun a roll out today of its app in the Isle of Wight. It will be trialed here before a nationwide extension, if testing is successful.

Unlike the majority of the contact tracing apps, the UK’s version will work with a centralised data system. This has garnered criticism from those worried about privacy, though Japan and France are also using a centralised system for its apps.

An app to track the spread of coronavirus will be launched in the UK, the health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.

Speaking in the government’s daily press briefing on Sunday, Hancock confirmed that the UK would be launching an app, based on the concept of contract tracing. Design Week reported on a similar app, TraceTogether, which Singapore has launched to combat the crisis.

The UK version has been developed by NHSX, the digital arm of the NHS. The BBC reports that NHSX is testing a “pre-release version of the software with families at a secure location in the North of England next week”.

Contact tracing works by informing people that they have recently come into contact with someone who has coronavirus. However, it is not always possible to keep a list of people you have been in contact with. These apps hope to solve this problem.

It would work by building up a remotely-stored contact list via Bluetooth on people’s phones – if two people who have the app come into contact with each other, their details would be encrypted onto each other’s devices by Bluetooth. If someone with the app reports a case of COVID-19, they would report positive and their contact list would be notified.


Apple and Google team up for Bluetooth tracing software

The pace of change is fast amid the pandemic. On Friday, Apple and Facebook announced a rare collaboration – an application programming interface (API) which would allow Bluetooth-based tracking apps to work more efficiently.

The companies plan to release the software in mid-May, and say they are working with various governments and health agencies. The BBC reports that while NHSX was not aware of the technology when they first developed the app, the UK app will use the software.

Google and Apple say that the system will not track users’ locations or collect data that is stored on a server. By providing a foundation for apps, the two companies could open up possibilities for millions of mobile phone owners.

While apps have already been put in place, this new API has solutions to some ongoing problems. Apple phones, for example, have limited access to Bluetooth when apps are being run in the background, which aims to preserve power and privacy. That will be lifted on contact tracing apps using the the software.

In a second iteration of the software, planned for a June roll-out, the companies say that they will enable Bluetooth-based contact tracing even if an app is not installed on phones.

“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,’ the two companies say.

Apple also announced that it had designed a Face Shield, and that would be sourcing 20m face masks.


Will the “highest ethical and security standards” be enough?

Matt Hancock

With these apps, there is a concern over privacy. Hancock said: “All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research, and we won’t hold it any longer than it’s needed.”

Hancock also confirmed that the source code would be published as well. The app will reportedly be launched in the coming weeks, though the health secretary said that the government is “already testing this app” and “working closely with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in digital safety and ethics”.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, CEO of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, says that the technology must have parameters for the public interest. She says: “We support the use of technology to save lives during the pandemic. At the same time it must have the appropriate safeguards in place to protect people’s privacy and data.

“The right to privacy is one of our most precious rights and it is good to hear the Health Secretary give assurances of handling this information with the highest ethical standards and for the shortest period necessary. We will be contacting the NHS to offer our advice and assistance in what they will need to consider.”

There have been concerns over the use of technology, its infringement on citizens’ privacy, from China’s ‘health code’ apps to the UK’s growing CCTV networks, and how they might be difficult to scale back after the pandemic is over.

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