As Boris Johnson announces further measures to ease lockdown rules, the question has been raised – again – about how the government will continue to monitor the pandemic. On May 5 the government announced a contact tracing app, with the aim of tracking the spread of the virus and isolating new infections, to warn them if the virus started to spread more rapidly. However, on June 18, the government admitted that the app they initially developed was flawed and they’d be working with Apple and Google to develop a new model. What isn't clear, however, is whether the NHSX contact tracing app is already on your phone?
Over the last few days many people have noticed an addition to their smartphones (both Android and iPhone). If you go into your settings and search the term “COVID-19” you’ll be presented with a COVID-19 exposure notifications page. On an iPhone it’s found in the health sub-section of settings, and Android users will be able to see it in the Google services section. While, this isn’t the tracking app, it is technology that allows public health tracking apps to work across devices.
The Exposure Notification API was added in recent uploads to phone systems, but users have to make the explicit decision to turn it on. And when the app is ready, the NHS assure members of the public that it will be "entirely voluntary and people have the choice of whether or not to download the app".
Speaking to the BBC about the confusion between the tracing app and the API, computer scientist Professor Alan Woodward from Surrey University said: “This is not a new app, but is an extra element added to the phones' operating systems to enable approved developers to build apps that can potentially warn of proximity to infected individuals. Only apps approved by Google and Apple will be included in their app stores where they try to make use of this facility."
Developers are hoping the app, when ready, will more easily track and trace people with COVID-19. It will work by monitoring the phones you come into close contact with via Bluetooth, and then notifying them if you contract coronavirus.
The BBC reported that the data collected by the app, such as your location, won’t be stored anywhere centrally, despite that fact that this is what the government initially planned. And The Telegraph noted that data will use anonymous IDs linked to a device, so phone owners will not know who might have passed on the virus. However, privacy experts have expressed concern surrounding patient confidentiality.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Dr Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, head of the Computational Privacy Group at Imperial College London, has warned that "contact tracing requires handling very sensitive data at scale, and solid and proven techniques exist to help us do it while protecting our fundamental right to privacy. We cannot afford to not use them.”
The government's website currently states: "We are currently developing our NHS coronavirus app, which is being trialled on the Isle of Wight. When rolled out nationally this app will supplement the other forms of contact tracing."
So, when should we expect to be able to download the NHSX contact tracing app, should we choose to? Lord Bethell, the Junior Health Minister, is reported to have told MPs: "We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t the priority at the moment.”