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Privacy Rights Groups Welcome Contact-tracing App U-turn

Ross Kelly

,

SAFE2GO

ORG executive director Jim Killock welcomed the move but highlighted lingering questions over privacy and efficiency. 

The UK Government’s decision to switch to a decentralised Covid-19 contact-tracing app has been welcomed by privacy rights groups.

It is hoped that contract-tracing apps could help prevent or stifle a second wave of the virus. However, Open Rights Group (ORG) and other organisations have raised concerns that the UK Government’s app will create a privacy minefield by storing sensitive data in a centralised database.

The UK Government confirmed it will shift the coronavirus-tracing app toward a model based on technology developed by Google and Apple – a decision which ORG has hailed as a step in the right direction.

Commenting on the decision, ORG executive director Jim Killock welcomed the move but warned that significant questions still remain over privacy.

“We are delighted that the government listened to our and others advice in ditching the NHS’ ‘world-beating’ app and to follow the successful model of other countries,” he said.

“People need to trust the app, and it needs to work. Some countries using decentralised matching have already released their apps. It will also work across borders. Decentralised matching makes the app much easier to trust, as it doesn’t track you,” Killock added.

The privacy rights group said it still harbours worries over employers forcing people to use the app, noting that a safeguards bill could help workers by making this unlawful. Similarly, lingering questions remain over whether Bluetooth matching is accurate enough and if the UK Government will ensure people follow advice to get tested or isolate.

Other European nations, including Germany, Italy and Denmark have already switched from a centralised to decentralised model in regard to contact-tracing.

While the Google and Apple design has been championed as a more privacy-focused model, this does mean the government will have less data at its disposal.

The UK Government noted that ‘rigorous’ field testing, as well as a trial on the Isle of Wight, identified challenges with both its own app and the Google-Apple framework.

While the centralised app trialled on the Isle of Wight was effective at measuring the distance between two users, it was poor at identifying Apple iPhone users. The app software recognised around 75% of Androids, but only 4% of iPhones, figures show.

99% of Android and Apple devices were recognised via the Apple-Google model. However, distance calculations were acknowledged as weaker.

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In a joint statement published yesterday, Baroness Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, and Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX, confirmed the decision.

“Our response to this virus has and will continue to be as part of an international effort. That is why as part of a collaborative approach we have agreed to share our own innovative work on estimating the distance between app users with Google and Apple, work that we hope will benefit others while using their solution to address some of the specific technical challenges identified through our rigorous testing,” the statement reads.

Downing Street said it plans to launch an app in Autumn of this year. However, BBC News reported that this may not even involve contact-tracing, and will instead be a limited app through which users can report their symptoms or order a test.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government told BBC News: “We will continue to work with the UK Government to gather the information we need on data integration, technical information and overall timescales before making any decisions on whether or not to support its use.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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