Partially accurate exposure notification may be best users get from UK contact tracing app

Renowned UK mobile expert warns that adoption, capability, privacy and user behaviour are issues yet to be addressed with UK contact-tracing app, and that results may not be worthwhile to overall fight against Covid-19

In its second investigation into the workings of the UK’s much-delayed and much-criticised contact tracing app, technology and message recovery service Reincubate has cast further doubt on the effectiveness of the product, observing that neither of the two fundamental technological bases for the app have worked as well as hoped and that major technical obstacles persist in four key areas.

The renowned UK mobile expert said that following its May analysis of the UK’s tracking app regarding the reported power issues associated with the product, the news that the UK is switching to use Apple and Google’s Exposure tracking APIs, and the recent appearance of contact tracing on iPhones, Reincubate has shared analysis of what’s happened since.

The company noted that since details of the app’s development were first aired in April 2020 a new picture was emerging, where technology was regarded as a panacea for contact tracing and that there had been “plenty” of politics at play in terms of how the British Covid-19 response has been communicated.

Yet even as the government drew more fire for announcing in June 2020 that it now be pressing on using a decentralised app model, Reincubate CEO Aidan Fitzpatrick argued that neither of the approaches used – the UK’s initial centralised structure or the Apple/Google API – worked as well as had been hoped, and obstacles persist with adoption, hardware capability, privacy concerns and user behaviour.

“While some countries have claimed limited success with their contact tracing apps, data is scant, and that question of whether the technology works is now a politically led – and not technological – narrative,” he said. “My view is the best users may get from these technologies is partially accurate exposure notification, as distinct from contact tracing.”

Drilling deeper into the exact nature of these obstacles, Reincubate said that adoption was in danger from users not having the precise iOS upgrade or Android software required to use the technology, and that in terms of hardware capability, iPhones from 2015 cannot run the app, and that the average Android device has low-quality Bluetooth which won’t track distance well.

Moreover, users were expressing privacy concerns about installing or granting access to the apps. It cited the example of Apple enabling the settings menu for its system being enough to cause consternation in the UK. There was also, in Reincubate’s opinion, a potential behavioural obstacle due to users not necessarily following up on Covid-19 reporting or testing requirements for the apps to work. The company warned that as it is, there are concerns over much simpler social distancing rules being ignored.

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In addition to concerns, Reiuncubate said there had also been a number of misconceptions surrounding the app’s development. The first misconception, said Reincubate, was that the UK government was committed to pursuing “going it alone”. While noting that it was true that the UK government had announced they were going to try this, it was also a statement of fact that they contracted to build an implementation using Apple and Google’s API.

Indeed, as they defended the original app and its nature from criticism of its effectiveness and the use of centralised data gathering, renowned government scientists and senior management from NHSX revealed that the project was a pragmatic one, and if conditions dictated a technological change such as use the decentralised technology from Apple and Google that saw use in other countries’ apps, they would do so. And just as details of the ongoing app trail in the Isle of Wight were publicised, it emerged that a shadow app development programme was taking place.

The second misconception for Reincubate was that the NHSX app was inadequately tested. It noted that when the Isle of Wight trial was started, the NHSX open-sourced their app and shared a number of documents about how it was built and tested. When it looked at whether there was an adequate test methodology, the conclusion Reincubate made was that the NHSX team had found a novel technique to attempt to address the shortcomings of the earlier launched Australian contact tracing app, but it wasn’t clear how well it would work.

The third misconception was that the NHSX app was a waste of money, or led to a delay in the Government rolling out a working app. Reincubate saw two flaws in this analysis. It noted in May 2020 that deploying an app using the Apple or Google API was not a practical option. It observed a number of key points: iOS 13.5 has not been released, and may not be for some weeks; the last iOS 13.5 beta had a major security flaw, suggesting heavy lifting is going on in Apple’s engineering teams; once iOS 13.5 is released, it will likely take months for a majority of iOS users to install it. This compared with the more rapid equivalent Android adoption. Furthermore, Reincubate said that older iOS devices – such as the iPhone 6 – cannot run iOS 13, and will not be able to use the Apple technique.

Reincubate concludes that as a result, and given how important adoption is for the technology to work, it might be feasible to explore using Apple’s APIs in early 2021. It added that if the UK doesn’t have an Apple or Google API-based tool by January 2021, perhaps that could be considered a delay. Reincubate also noted that Singapore was rolling out dedicated hardware devices to its population to address this problem.

Yet with distancing problems being found with both the NHSX and Google or API approaches, as well as the other issues, Reincubate said that any waste of money accusation was an unusual one and that he dual-track approach the UK has run seems like the gold standard.

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