The UK has confirmed plans for an app that will warn users if they have recently been around someone suspected of having been infected with the coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the decision at the government’s daily pandemic press conference.
He said the NHS “is working closely with the world’s largest tech companies” on the initiative.
But an expert who advised the effort raised doubts about it.
The BBC has learned that NHSX – the health service’s digital innovation unit – will test a preliminary version of the software with families in a secure location in the north of England next week.
Right now, the idea is that people who have diagnosed themselves with coronavirus will be able to declare their status in the app.
The software will then send the equivalent of a yellow alert to any other user with whom it has recently been close for a long time.
If a medical test confirms that the original user is indeed infected, a stronger warning – actually a red alert – will be sent instead, signaling that the other users should be quarantined.
To report a positive test, the user should enter a verification code, which they would have received with their Covid-19 status.
Hancock said use of the app would be voluntary in his brief comments.
“If you’re not feeling well with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can safely tell this new NHS app,” he said.
“And the app will then send an anonymous alert to other app users with whom you’ve been in significant contact in the past few days, even before you show symptoms, so they know and can act on it .
“All data will be treated according to the highest ethical and security standards and will only be used for NHS care and research.
“And we won’t keep it longer than necessary. “
His reference to a merger with technology companies was a nod to Apple and Google, who announced Friday that they were working on a software building block, called API, to facilitate the creation of contact tracking applications. by others.
NHSX was not aware of this project before, but is now planning to incorporate the technology into its own product.
His system will keep track of handsets that have moved closer to each other by recording when they have detected each other’s Bluetooth signals.
One of the benefits of using Apple and the Google API is that the NHS application will not have to use workarounds to continue monitoring signals even when the application is not active.
Part of the reason why Apple and Google say they developed their own idea was to make sure that the privacy of iOS and Android users was not compromised.
Their method is designed so that citizens can raise and receive alerts without the authorities being informed of who was involved.
But a cybersecurity expert consulted on the app has listed a series of concerns about the project in a blog.
Professor Ross Anderson of the University of Cambridge:
- worried about the effectiveness of the technology, unless everyone is regularly tested
- reported doubts about using Bluetooth, as its signals can pass through thin walls, which means that there could be false flags
- cautioned against “trolling”, suggesting that allowing people to declare they were sick without any checks would open the system up for abuse
“I recognize the overwhelming strength of the public health arguments for a centralized system, but I also have 25 years of NHS experience being unable to develop systems and repeatedly break their promises of confidentiality when they manage to collect valuable data for someone else, “added the security engineering professor.
“I am really uncomfortable collecting a lot of slightly anonymized data in a system that fits into a whole-of-government response to the pandemic. We could never get rid of it. ”
The Behavioral Insights team – a private company also known as the Nudge Unit – advises the government on how to encourage as many people as possible to download and use the app.
The NHSX estimates that more than half of the outgoing population must use it for automatic contact tracing to be effective.