The UK’s NHS is in a standoff with Apple and Google after the two tech firms refused to support the UK’s plans to build a coronavirus tracing app that alerts users when they have been in contact with someone with coronavirus.
Apple and Google are encouraging health services worldwide to build contact-tracing apps that operate in a decentralised way, allowing individuals to know when they’ve been in contact with an infected person but preventing governments from using that data to build a picture of population movements in aggregate.
But the policies, unveiled last week, apply only to apps that don’t result in the creation of a centralised database of contacts. That means that if the NHS goes ahead with its original plans, its app would face severe limitations on its operation.
The limitations mirror problems faced by Singapore, which released its contact-tracing app, TraceTogether, before Apple and Google announced their policies. The app, which has a three-star rating on Singapore’s App Store, has been installed by just 12% of the population.
The limits exist because modern smartphones tightly control what apps can do with technologies such as Bluetooth, in order to prevent infringements of privacy. On iPhones, for example, a normal app has strictly limited access to Bluetooth unless it is running in the “foreground” – meaning actively on screen and in use – in order to prevent apps from surreptitiously tracking users without consent.
The NHS had been hoping those limits would be lifted for Covid-19 contact-tracing apps, according to a source with knowledge of the app development.
MacDailyNews Take: Again, Bluetooth works right through plasterboard. A person sitting on a sofa in one apartment would look like they were sitting near another person in an adjacent apartment.
What about public transport or any of the myriad ways people will be in Bluetooth range for the 10-minute period or whatever arbitrary time limit is implemented? (The virus could transmit in a second given a good unprotected cough; it doesn’t need 10 minutes.)
As we wrote Tuesday, specifically in regard to the U.S., but the problems with the system’s ineffectiveness are universal and apply to UK contact-tracing, too:
Listen, we know Apple and Google, like most everyone else, want to “do something,” but the companies shouldn’t waste their time on “solutions” that are destined to fail. Go source or make some more N95 masks and make them available inexpensively to people who have to go out and work for the next 12-18 months before a vaccine is available. That would be a lot more effective. The only thing this effort will have any positive impact on is PR for Apple and Google (unless, of course, nothing of substance comes from it or it results in a lot of useless false positive contacts, damaging Apple’s and Google’s brands).
Apple and Google can address questions until the cows come home, we’re not going to be installing any apps that use this proposed system, due to the Google connection, of course, but also, first and foremost, because it simply won’t work anyway for reasons (beyond the intractable Bluetooth-drywall issue) that we explained [Tuesday] morning:
The problem with any COVID-19 contact-tracing tech in the U.S. is obvious, it wouldn’t work very well unless almost everyone used it, but U.S. citizens cannot be compelled to install a tracking app. So, such an app would have to be opt-in and nobody in their right mind trusts Google, much less the U.S. government, to handle lightly anonymized tracking data or to ever turn off collection or delete the data post-vaccine, Therefore, opt-in rates for a contact-tracing app would be suboptimal, if not dismal, resulting in ineffective COVID-19 contact-tracing.
If the government tries to make having such an app active as a requirement for working, or even moving about freely, they’d very likely have very poor legal outcome in the United States.
No location data is truly anonymized. It can be cross-matched with other publicly-available data to identify and track individuals. The idea of any government requiring cellphone tracking to monitor its citizens’ movements, regardless of the reason, is chilling. — MacDailyNews, April 2, 2020
Further, beyond the obvious constitutional rights issues, 18% of the U.S. population, nearly 1-in-5 people, do not even have a smartphone. So, with one of every 5th person roaming about by default, not to mention all of the opt-outs, contact-tracing via iOS and Android smartphones would be more of a feel-good security blanket than anything else.
Smartphone penetration in the UK is currently around 85%. So, 15% in the UK don’t even have a smartphone to participate in contact-tracing. And that’s before you factor in non-compliance. “Digital herd immunity” is a nice idea, until every fourth or fifth person with whom you come in contact is a potential, untraceable COVID-19 carrier.
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. — Benjamin Franklin
Lastly, Apple should be careful here. Google has an awful reputation regarding user privacy. Apple must be wary of tarnishing (or destroying) the reputation for user privacy that they’ve carefully built over many years with a system that not only involves Google, of all companies, but that also has a slew of obvious privacy issues. — MacDailyNews, April 13, 2020