The United Kingdom has launched its first test of a coronavirus contact-tracing application on Monday in the Isle of Wight, a small island off the southern coast of England. The app uses Bluetooth to alert users if someone near them has tested positive for the virus. Developed by the digital unit of the National Health Service (NHS), the app will also upload information to a central database to help experts study the behavior of the virus.
Unlike Germany, the UK has decided not to utilize technology jointly-developed by Google and Apple as that would only store data locally on individual devices. Instead, the anonymous user information will be encrypted and stored by the health authority while complying with UK privacy rules. The government is hopeful that more than half of the 80,000 households on the Isle of Wight will download the app after its launch Monday. If the test succeeds, the app will be made available across the country later this month.
According to Christophe Fraser, an infectious disease expert at Oxford University, these types of apps have the potential of being highly effective in halting mass infections. If the public is warned that they may have been exposed to the virus, steps can be taken to prevent further transmission. Nonetheless, in order for the app to succeed, at least 60% of the population needs to download and use the app, stated Fraser last month. Furthermore, the UK government states that it wants to hire 18,000 contact tracers in the next few weeks in order to keep track of the virus once lockdown is lifted. Contact tracers will be in charge of tracing infected people and others who may have come in contact with them.
The UK app has already faced heavy criticism by privacy advocates who claim that a decentralized approach to managing data provides greater security against “bad state actors” spying on citizens. However, other experts argue that keeping the data centrally-located protects the app systems from being overwhelmed by hacking attacks, and thus allows the government to better track and study the spread of the virus. Matthew Gould, the leader of the of the NHS app’s development, told a UK parliamentary committee on Monday that by centralizing the data, health officials could have a better insight into crucial information like which symptoms are the most common and whether there is a difference in the spread of the virus by infected individuals with symptoms versus those who are asymptomatic.