Thoughts on UK Covid19 contact tracing app

Updated 15th May 2020. Added 2 new resources 9. and 10. below…

If you live in the UK then pretty soon you’re going to be asked by the government to install a Covid19 tracking app on your phone.

I must admit that my initial reaction was no way. My trust in this government is extremely limited.

And having an IT background means that my trust in quickly developed, phone based apps means that again my confidence in this app was going to be low. It takes multiple months, years even, and multiple software releases to debug an app.

I’m also very concerned about the data privacy aspects of this UK app. Google and Apple, not the most privacy focused companies, are developing a general backend (an “API”) that others can use to develop apps like this. This API actually has privacy aspects built in. Which is surprising for those companies. It’s designed to keep data on your phone – a de-centralised model. But the British government has decided to not use this. They have decided to go with their own centralised model. Data will be stored on your phone and then you will upload it to a centralised government server.

The government wants this because it will allow them to analyse general trend data much better. But it will also mean that they have a complete profile of who you have spent time with, who you associate with, where you go. I think that’s a step too far. The primary purpose of this app is to allow the app to contact people who you have been close to, if you end up with Covid19. To warn them to self isolate. To stop the actual spread. I see big risks in giving the government data that goes beyond that.

I’m also worried about the possible malicious use of this app. It will be possible for people to wander around, maybe sit on the bus or the train with the app. They then maliciously report that they have Covid19. Everyone who has the app also on that bus or train then gets notified that they have been in contact with an infected person, and that they should self isolate for 14 days. The potential for abuse here is huge. This hasn’t really been thought through.

So for now, I won’t be installing the app. For 2 reasons – I don’t trust it; and also it will be worthless for me and those closely around me – because we will continue to social distance even after lockdown is eased. The app will not be useful for me because there won’t be any multiple close contacts around me for it to track. Apart from 3 or 4 people in my close bubble, I won’t be having that contact.

However, if you have to travel for work, or other reasons, and will have to mingle closely with other people then it may be useful for you. Make up your own mind. I have listed multiple links below to sources that you may find useful…

1. Evaluating COVID-19 contact tracing apps? Here are 8 privacy questions we think you should ask – Imperial College London, April 2nd 2020

2. NHS rejects Apple-Google coronavirus app plan. BBC News. 27th April 2020

3. Coronavirus: NHS virus tracing app could be used in Wales. BBC News, 4th May 2020

4. Everything you need to know about the NHS Covid-19 tracking app. Wired UK. 4th May 2020

5. UK COVID-19 contact-tracing app data may be kept for ‘research’ after crisis ends, MPs told. The Register. 4th May 2020

6. UK finds itself almost alone with centralized virus contact-tracing app that probably won’t work well, asks for your location, may be illegal. The Register. 5th May 2020

7. UK eyeing switch to Apple-Google API for coronavirus contacts tracing — report. TechCrunch. 7th May 2020.

8. Coronavirus: NHS reveals source code behind contact-tracing app. BBC News. 7th May 2020

9. NHS contact tracing app isn’t really anonymous, is riddled with bugs, and is open to abuse. Good thing we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, eh? The Register. 14th May 2020

10. Contact-tracing app tests on the Isle of Wight show that technology is not the solution. ComputerWeekly. 15th May 2020

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