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Can technology save us from coronavirus – and should I download the app?

Example COVID-tracking app

As we start to come out of lockdown, we're all going to come under pressure to download and use a track-and-trace app. The government is currently trialling the one it has developed on the Isle of Wight, and health secretary Matt Hancock has said it will be rolled out to the whole UK soon, possibly as early as next week.

Belatedly, the rest of the world is catching up with South Korea, which has been very successful in containing its coronavirus outbreak using smartphone and video surveillance. The Prime Minister’s new Covid Alert System depends on technology to track and trace people with the disease. The World Health Organisation has also said the ability to track, trace and isolate is vital to lifting lockdown.

But there have been concerns about the privacy of the government’s app. So will you be downloading it? Should you? Should your family?

What is the privacy issue?

The UK, like France, has decided to develop its own app, rather than the one Google and Apple are creating together.

The government’s app depends on holding all the data in one place, whereas the Apple/Google app disperses it. The UK government says centralised data will allow better insight into hotspots and the spread of the pandemic.

But privacy campaigners have objected that there isn’t enough clarity about what information will be collected, or how it might be used in future. There are fears the data may never be deleted. Britain's own Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has said decentralised systems (such as the Apple/Google one) are better, and called for a Data Protection Impact Assessment.

While the app’s users will be anonymised, the first thing the app asks you to do is put in the first part of your postcode. This generates a unique identifying number. (The Apple/Google system produces a new ID each day). Privacy campaigners say this makes it easier for users to be identified.

After you tell the app you feel unwell, it collects data about you for 28 days. You are not entitled to ask for it to be deleted. Lawyers have argued that the app may very well face challenges on both human rights and data protection laws.

What does this mean for children?

Basically, it’s a muddle. Contacted by Parent Zone, the Department of Health and Social Care said the minimum age for installing the app is “16 or 17, depending on Apple/Google app store specifications.”

We all know it’s possible for young people to get around age restrictions, especially without any robust form of age verification. This opens up the possibility that the app could collect health and other data on children without their parents’ consent.

The Department of Health added:

‘We are still assessing the effectiveness and usability of the NHS-Covid-19 app for young people as part of our commitment to ensuring that the app can reach and support as many members of society as possible… [we] will make sure that parents and guardians have guidance about the app where required.”

In other words, they don’t really know how they’re going to handle this yet.

Any other concerns about the app?

A number of technologists have pointed out that the app may not be very effective in working with Apple and Google’s software, creating two problems. First, the app may not ‘wake up’ fast enough to be effective. Second, it could drain phone batteries, resulting in people not using it.

The other concern is that it won’t be compatible with the Apple/Google app, and that may stop us travelling abroad in future.

This is all very complicated – should I download it?

The government needs 60 per cent of the population to download the app – so you can bet that if they do decide to go with this version, we’ll be strongly encouraged to install it.

For the app to be effective, though, the government also needs the ability to test not just in hospitals and care homes, but also in the community – because unless you can test people who have symptoms, it’s hard to persuade their contacts to self-isolate.

In the Isle of Wight, people have been happy to try the app, with 55,000 people out of a possible 80,000 having downloaded it.

By the time you have to make a decision, however, things may well have changed. The FT reports that the NHS is also now looking at developing an app based on the Apple/Google model in parallel.

Clearly, there are still questions to be answered about how the app will actually work before we can be convinced that tech is going to save us.

Image: rcfotostock/


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