A matter of life and death

2 min read

The contact-tracing app that has been developed by the NHS to help track Covid-19 has been rolled out across the Isle of Wight and we are still waiting to see the take up rate and what issues have been uncovered by users.

The use of this contact-tracing app has raised concerns over privacy because of the centralised approach it takes, and it is likely that it will face a legal challenge from lawyers concerned at the impact on users’ privacy and from the fact that it might end up being mandatory, rather than voluntary.

The NHS has responded with an ethics board to improve oversight and may look to delete collected data once the country returns to normal. NHSX developers, involved with the app’s development, have said that data will not be shared with other departments or with private companies.

Google and Apple have developed an alternative database-free decentralised approach, but that was rejected by the UK government - or has it? The government now appears to be hedging its bets and is in talks about also developing this app.

To be successful around 60 percent of the population will need to download the NHSX app, but worries over privacy could see that target being missed.

There are also concerns about the reliability of the data, as smartphone operating systems impose strict limits on normal apps that prevent them from infringing user privacy and that could undermine the performance of the app.

Research from the Cass Business School has found that it is possible to implement a privacy-respecting contact tracing app that can achieve widespread adoption, just so long as it’s run by the NHS, rather than the government.

Their research found that adoption rates increased if the app was linked to priority testing for Covid-19 for those who get infection alerts, and they also found that the public wanted an ‘expiry date’ for data. It was also clear that any tracing app would not be effective unless there was a significant public uptake, no matter how technologically sophisticated it was.

According to the research, adoption rates soared to 70 per cent if the safeguarding of privacy and civil liberties was in place. By contrast an app, similar to the NHSX version, was found to have the lowest adoption rate at just 51.1 per cent. Why? Because the government was perceived to be in control of it and its data.

There’s also an issue here about smartphone ownership. Many people with lower incomes and older people are less likely to own a smartphone, and as we’ve seen from the statistics published by the ONS those groups are most at risk.

Despite worries over privacy, Cass did find that respondents showed a willingness to share data and accept more invasive measures than in ‘normal’ times.

That is a concern because it brings with it a massive level of responsibility on the part of decision-makers. They need to get this right if they want to successfully combat this pandemic because it is a matter of life and death.