Doubts mount over effectiveness of UK contact-tracing app

Studies from BCS and Anomali reveal that a significant proportion of the UK population is not prepared to download the Covid-19 contact-tracing app

Even as the UK’s trials of a Covid-19 contact-tracing app are still at a very early stage, indeed just over two weeks in, more experts have piled into the debate as to whether the app will be launched at its scheduled time slot of May 2020, and if it will in any case be effective.

According to a survey by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, less than a quarter of IT professionals think the planned NHSX contact-tracing app will be effective in containing Covid-19, while a study on behalf of cyber security solutions provider Anomali revealed that a significant proportion of the population are not prepared to download the app.

The contract-tracing app that became available for download in the Isle of Wight on 4 May 2020 works by using Bluetooth Low Energy technology to alert people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, so that they can take action to protect themselves.

Once installed, the app will start logging the distance between a user’s smartphone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed. The anonymous log of how close users are to others will be stored securely on the user’s phone. If a user becomes unwell with symptoms of Covid-19, they can allow the app to inform the NHS, which, subject to risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to other app users with whom the user has come into significant contact over the previous few days.

Yet almost as soon as the first details of the app’s capability were announced, critics weighed in with concerns over what it could achieve and whether the public could, or would, make representative use of it. Particular concerns were held over whether the app’s centralised nature would lead to privacy breaches and whether it would be any use at all though a lack of user uptake.

Indeed, as the app was being launched, the BCS warned that without aligning the app’s availability to a testing regime, the UK government would not be able to ‘big data’ its way out of a ‘no data’ situation.

Adding to these initial concerns, in its study of 1,716 of its members in a poll issued between 11 and 15 May, the BCS found that just 24% believe the app will contribute to curbing the virus, with 32% feeling it will make no contribution and 45% undecided. Members told the organisation that data security and privacy were their top concerns, followed by doubts around the app’s ability to work effectively, and then trust in the government. Concern about automating the advice to self-isolate was also an issue for 27% of respondents.

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Just over half of professionals (51%) said the government should switch to the decentralised Google-Apple API model of storing records, and only 23% favour the planned centralised model designed into the app currently, and most of the rest had no opinion.

While noting the BCS was clear that if done ethically and competently a tracing app could make a huge contribution to stopping the spread of Covid-19, Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT stressed the majority of its members fundamentally believed the current model would work, and were worried about the reliance on a centralised database.

“It feels like there is a lot of goodwill out there to give a tracing app a chance – if it can be shown to work,” he said. “That means if these concerns are fully addressed then maybe over 60% of the population will install a high-quality app.

“That’s the magic adoption figure we need for the app to have real impact on stopping Covid-19. The government will need to work hard to convince people that ‘ethical by design, correct by design, and privacy by default’ values are baked into the app to get the download numbers it is aiming for.”

By the end of its first week of availability, the app had been downloaded by approximately a third of the island’s population, a number that is said to have grown to by approximately over half by 18 May. Yet looking at those who would download within its own ranks, BCS found that some 42% of IT experts said they would be downloading the app for themselves, with 36% saying they would not install it and 21% undecided.

Such a lack of general enthusiasm for the app was also reflected in the Anomali study which revealed that not only were a significant proportion of the population not prepared to download the contact-tracing app, but a large proportion of the old and vulnerable could be excluded from its benefits.

Necessary technology

Anomali surveyed a thousand respondents across the UK and also discovered that half of respondents (50%) know at least one person who does not have the necessary technology, such as a smart phone, to support the NHSX app.

To compound matters, the results of Anomali’s survey reveal that almost a third (29%) of respondents have expressly refused to download the app, and a further 27% remain on the fence. Among them, over a third (36%) worry that the app would allow the government to collect data on them, and almost half (48%) have cited their lack of trust in the government to safeguard the information from cyber criminals.

Yet despite the lack of engagement in the UK, more than half of respondents (51%) believe that the app will be either somewhat or very effective in controlling Covid-19. In fact, over a third of respondents (39%) agreed that downloading the contact tracing app should be made obligatory.

These study’s findings were “truly enlightening”, said Jamie Stone, head of EMEA at Anomali. “The rule of critical mass demands that at least 60% of the population utilises the app in order for it to be effective. However, these findings point to a significantly diminished pool of users, and thus, the critical mass fundamental to the app’s performance now hangs in the balance,” he said.

“Moreover, many of the individuals without the necessary technology likely come from an older generation, or from low-income backgrounds. In this way, excluding the most vulnerable of society from any benefits this app might bring … when it comes down to it in practice, the majority of the population are not willing to use the app, and many may not even possess the technology to run it.

“Without this vital participation, any potential that the app may have had is jeopardised,” said Stone. “In other words, we might find that only countries who enforce a strict adoption of the app stand to benefit from the scheme.”

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