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The NHS COVID-19 App

Being a technology company based on the Isle of Wight we've been in the very fortunate position of having early access to the new NHS COVID-19 Track and Trace App. We've also seen a lot of the discussions and concerns of our fellow Islanders as they decide whether to download it and their early user experience and what they are saying on social media.

The NHS COVID-19 App, Separating Fact from Fiction.

An essay by Steve Clark

Version 1.2 dated 11th May 2020

(v1.0 first published 9th May 2020 - For overview of changes between versions see the final page)

Download the PDF of the full essay

Summary

Being a technology company based on the Isle of Wight we’ve been in the very fortunate position of having early access to the new NHS COVID-19 Track and Trace App.  We’ve also seen a lot of the discussions and concerns of our fellow Islanders as they decide whether to download it and their early user experience and what they are saying on social media.

This essay is for anyone genuinely interested in how the App works and to help make sense of what they are reading about it and the alternatives in the media and social media and is aimed at everyone, not just technical readers.

It “gets under the hood” of the App and the technical infrastructure and cuts through the myths doing the rounds on social media to separate the Facts from Fiction and tries to put to bed those issues for which there is a technical answer, and provide a sensible context to where there isn’t one answer.

  • We explain the Bluetooth challenges and the difference between the “centralised” and “decentralised” approaches that have been widely talked about and look at what Apple and Google are doing.
  • We explain why we have no worries about participating in the trial ourselves (nor would have worries about continuing to use the App after a national rollout).
  • We look at the privacy issues both from the perspective of a private individual on the trial and how the privacy issues change when looked at from the perspective of the ICO and Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights with respect to safeguarding population scale data as well as views from other commentators.
  • We explore some of the other worries people are having about the App on social media and recommend looking at source documents not social media for information to make decisions.

Our opinion is that a digital App operating within the centralised model undoubtedly brings the better potential for getting on top of the virus especially as part of an overall track and trace programme with notable benefits over the decentralised model including hotspot tracking and identifying “Typhoid Marys” (asymptomatic carriers), though unfortunately carries greater privacy concerns.

The App is being developed in a time of crisis where time is of the essence and whilst this certainly doesn’t give carte blanche to ride roughshod over privacy and human rights legislation it is important to appreciate the accelerated time scales involved in both the App development and privacy compliance.  Risk shouldn’t be seen as one dimensional and it’s important to look at both the likelihood and impact of risks in the context of a single individual, the Isle of Wight Trial, and a national rollout and to remember many  risks apply to both the centralised and decentralised approach.  We should contrast those risks with the benefits, whilst at the same time implementing the necessary measures to mitigate them over the lifetime of the programme. 

We personally have already installed the App and have no concern in using it both during the trial and during a nationwide rollout as we believe the benefits outweigh the risks, however we recognise that some may assess the individual privacy risks differently from us and choose not to use the current App on trial in the Isle of Wight, in which case there is merit in the UK also pursuing a decentralised version built on the Apple/Google platform. 

 

Download the PDF of the full essay