UK gov’t abandons its COVID-19 tracing app, turns to Apple-Google tech

Two months after it was first warned about the problems of relying on a centralised contact-tracing model, government officials have been forced to adopt the design offered by the two tech giants.

coronavirus covid 19 pandemic cio technology 5073359 by geralt pixabay cc0 2400x1600
Geralt (CC0)

The UK government this week was forced to admit it’s abandoning its plan to develop a centralised COVID-19 tracing app, two months after it was first warned about the issues likely to plague the design.

A mere two weeks after Health Secretary Matt Hancock predicted a government app would be available to the public “in the coming weeks,” Health Minister Lord Bethel said on Wednesday that timeline has now been pushed back to winter.

The app was supposed to be a central pillar in the UK Government’s “world beating” track-and-trace system, using Bluetooth technology to warn members of the public when they came within two metres of someone with coronavirus symptoms.

Rather than building a decentralised app that would have been supported by Google and Apple, the UK Government opted for a centralised version of the untested technology, explicitly violating the tech companies’ privacy policies.

Government officials also admitted that during the Isle of Wight trial, the National Health Service app only recognised 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices. Government officials have not said how much money they spent on the now-failed app effort.

The U-turn has been welcomed by privacy experts, who expressed major concerns about the government approach. They have argued that a decentralised approach offers better privacy, storing information on individual devices and protecting users from hackers or the government itself revealing their social contacts.

Apple's COVID-19 coronavirus screening tool / app Brian McGowan (CC0)

While some people might still be concerned about Apple and Google having access to potentially personally identifiable data, Francis Gaffney, director of threat intelligence at Mimecast, said a decentralised approach is important for gaining public trust.

“If the public did not believe that the application would be secure, it is far less likely that they will download it,” Gaffney said. “This application is likely to see unprecedented data collection and it is vital that vigorous legal protection [be in place] for individuals about what that data will be used for, and who will have access to it.

“We have also already seen other nations, such as Norway, having to backtrack on their applications as they did not pass the necessary scrutiny and regulatory oversight. Privacy and security must be prioritised,” Gaffney said.

Ongoing problems

By adopting a decentralised model, the UK government expects to overcome issues related to privacy and phone recognition. Where the UK app only recognised 4% of Apple phones, the Apple and Google model recognised 99% of all phones. But other issues remain.

For example, the Apple-Google effort does not always accurately measure distance. Current UK guidance states that if you come within two metres of someone with coronavirus symptoms, you need to get tested. The Apple-Google technology has struggled to distinguish between phones one metre and three metres away.

People who live in terraced houses or blocks of flats have reported being warned they’ve come into contact with someone infected with coronavirus even though they were separated by a wall.

At the government’s daily press conference Wednesday, Hancock was critical of Apple: “We found that our app works well on Android devices but Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact tracing unless you are using Apple’s own technology.... As it stands, our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system, but [the UK app] can measure distance.”

Hancock also said that neither the UK or the Apple-Google app “are working sufficiently well enough to actually be reliable to determine whether any of us should self-isolate for two weeks.” He then followed up this statement by saying the UK was now looking to “join forces” with the two tech giants and “bring the best bits of both systems together” to build a hybrid model.

Speaking to The Times newspaper, a spokesperson for Apple said the company had neither been informed or consulted about the UK government’s new plan, stating “we don’t know what they mean by this hybrid model.”

Apple also queried the claim that their model was unable to measure distances accurately.

“It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us. But the app has been downloaded by six million in 24 hours in Germany, the Italians have had it going since Monday, the Dutch government and Irish government have it, and there has been no issue about proximity detection,” a source said.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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