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Coronavirus: NHSX working on contact tracing app

A contact tracing app to track the spread of infection is being developed, although specific technical details remain scarce

Digital healthcare innovation unit NHSX is exploring the idea of developing an app that alerts people if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus.

The contact tracing app would allow government and healthcare officials to instantly track the spread of infection digitally, removing the need for time-consuming manual tracking.

“NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing the coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible,” said an NHSX spokesperson.

This expertise includes a team of academic researchers at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, which published a research article in Science on the viability of “epidemic control with digital contact tracing” on 31 March.

They claim by keeping a temporary record of “proximity events” between individuals, the app will use an algorithmically controlled central server to instantaneously alert recent close contacts of diagnosed cases and prompt them to self-isolate, removing a week’s worth of manual contact tracing work.

Although both Sky News and the BBC have reported the app will use Bluetooth, at least in part, for the alerts system, the Science article makes no mention of the technology.

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Instead, it will record users’ GPS location data as they move around, which will be supplemented by QR codes posted to public amenities in places where a GPS signal is inadequate.

“The algorithmic approach we propose avoids the need for coercive surveillance, since the system can have very large impacts and achieve sustained epidemic suppression, even with partial uptake,” said the researchers. “People should be democratically entitled to decide whether to adopt this platform. The intention is not to impose the technology as a permanent change to society, but we believe it is under these pandemic circumstances it is necessary and justified to protect public health.”

However, in response to a question from Computer Weekly about whether the app would need to be accompanied by widespread testing to work, an NHSX spokesperson said they would not be going into any more detail at this time.

Sky also reported that VMWare subsidiary Pivotal has taken over development of the app, focusing instead on using Bluetooth, although when asked about their involvement a spokesperson said to refer the question to NHSX.

At the moment, the UK government testing for the coronavirus remains below the target of 10,000 a day, despite ministerial claims the milestone had been reached.

On BBC Question Time, editor-in-chief of respected medical journal The Lancet Richard Horton branded the UK government’s Covid-19 response a “national scandal” given that it has had clear warnings from China since January.

“We wasted February when we could have acted,” he said. “Time when we could’ve ramped up testing. Time when we could’ve got personal protective equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Potential for social control

On 21 March, an open letter signed by civil liberties groups and “responsible” technologists was sent to the CEO of NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, warning of the contact tracing apps potential use as a means of social control.

“The Coronavirus Bill gives immigration officers and police the power to detain people if they have ‘reasonable grounds to suspect … a person is infectious’. The combination of this new bill with existing far-reaching data-gathering powers creates the risk that location and contact tracking technology could be used as a means of social control,” it said.

“Not only does this kind of surveillance risk contravening human rights, but it is not guaranteed to work – particularly at this stage of the coronavirus outbreak.”

Signatures of the letter include representatives of the Open Data Institute, Big Brother Watch, Mozilla, and the Open Rights Group.

A notice from health secretary Matt Hancock, which was signed 20 March but has only become public since 1 April, provides legal backing for the NHS to set aside its duty of confidentiality in data sharing arrangements.

Covid-19 Purpose

Dubbed the Covid-19 Purpose, the new data sharing agreement means NHS organisations and GP’s can share any and all patient data with any organisation they like, so long as it’s for the purpose of fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

Contact tracing apps are already being used by governments around the world to track the spread of the virus, most notably in China, South Korea and Singapore.

For China and South Korea, their versions of the app use GPS location data to do the tracking, while Singapore’s works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones.

“The collection and logging of encounter/proximity data between devices that implement BlueTrace is done in a peer-to-peer, decentralised fashion, to preserve privacy,” said the team developing the Singapore government’s app.

When asked if it had been contacted by the UK government about the app, Singapore’s Government Technology Agency said it would not be in a position to know, and to contact the UK government directly.

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