UK’s NHS in standoff with Apple and Google over coronavirus tracing

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.

Here’ an illustration of how the Apple – Google coronavirus contact tracing is meant to work:
UK NHS coronavirus tracing. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool

Apple Google COVID. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool
Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool. Click for larger view (Source: Apple and Google)

Alex Hern for The Guardian:

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.

Beware COVID-19 tracking: Emergency powers can outlive their emergencies.

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


  1. N95 masks prevent transmission from the wearer to somebody else. A much simpler mask can do that almost as well.

    An N95 will only protect the wearer from droplets emitted within about two meters of the wearer. Droplets small enough to carry much farther are small enough to pass through the filter (as is the virus itself). Nobody other than a first responder, medical provider, or personal carer should be anywhere near that close to somebody without a mask.

    So, handing out N95 masks is not a substitute for social distancing, extensive testing, and contact tracing. The app may not be the best way to do tracing, but it has to be done in some form. Even the President acknowledged that in the guidance issued today.

    1. “Mobile phones” are not “smartphones.” From your link: “Given their role as the digital swiss army knife of modern tech, it is no surprise that smartphones are behind much of the growth in this space. Smartphone adoption reached 78 percent during the first half of 2018, up from 29 percent at the beginning of 2011.”

      Our link above ( explicitly refers to smartphone penetration in the UK.

      A smartphone is required for Apple – Google contract tracing, not just a mobile phone.

      We love the UK, by the way.

  2. I think MDN need to be very careful themselves, they are becoming increasingly political and opinionated about COVID-19 which isn’t really in their domain of expertise and in this case I don’t think they have all of the facts and it has resulted in them making misleading comments.

    Like the comment above said, mobile phone ownership is a lot higher than 85% in the UK and has been for a long time. I work in a digital agency and we track this sort of thing. The UK has a very well developed mobile phone market, in some ways its way ahead of the US especially in terms of mobile payments and banking.

    I’m an American and have lived and worked in the UK for a very, very long time. I also have many developer friends who work in the technology/digital services for the UK, including NHSX who are developing the contact tracing app in the UK. So I have some knowledge of what is actually going on in regards to the UK.

    As has been said, there are two aspects to this, one is the API and the other is the app that Apple and Google are releasing.

    In terms of the UK, they are looking at maybe using these new APIs but they have actually been developing their own app for sometime (Some departments in the UK actually started preparing in early Jan). It combines GPS information, the health information of registered users and surveys/questionnaires to try and track the virus. My developer friends acknowledge its limitations and scope/coverage but the idea is that it will be part of a larger program of contact tracing that together will provide a clearer picture of what is happening in the community. They certainly aren’t trying to do “Digital herd immunity” or even think of using just this app to do contact tracing. It is one of tools and data sources they are using.

    I think this is really the point of what Apple and Google are trying to do. They are trying to give governments around the world another possible tool and point of view that they can use and combine with other data to help them make informed decisions. As long as governments take into account its limitations and combine it with other data, it could be very useful. For that reason I don’t think Apple or Google are wasting their time.

    I don’t usually comment when I disagree with MDN’s point of view because I don’t want to add to the hate and they are obviously welcome to have a different point of view but in this case they clearly don’t have all of the facts.

    I also applaud Apple and Google for working together on this and hope to see more of this from technology companies. I especially love the cooperation and innovation that’s happening between technology companies and health professionals to find novel solutions.

    Yes privacy and oversight should always be a concern but the fact is where there is data, there is always the risk it will be misused. Apple is not immune or innocent from this and MDN should not be blinded by their love for Apple in this area. Don’t get me wrong Apple is better than most and I trust them more than any other company but I don’t give them a free pass. Based on the fact that Apple has built up a reputation for privacy I would hope Apple would not be apart of this if it couldn’t guarantee some level of privacy and security from Google.

    We can’t let the fear of misuse of data or privacy from trying to find innovate solutions to our current crisis. We need to make sure there is oversight and accountability. Call me an optimist but regardless of Google’s abuse of privacy I would hope the developers on this project are doing this for the good of everyone.

    MDN I’m not asking you to change, I love your takes on Apple news but please focus on what you know, Apple.

    I’m saying this not only because of the comments you’ve made but because several of my friends have stopped reading you and I don’t want to loose this web site.

    1. …also while masks can help, they are not guaranteed to keep you safe, in fact they could do the opposite. An NHS friend said they’ve had extensive training with masks and PPE and she said they only work if you use them properly. She worries about the general public having a false sense of security from using a mask when she knows that if they don’t use them correctly they could in fact end up unintentionally infecting themselves. I don’t want to list the suggestions she gave me as your government may have different guidelines but I can say I was amazed about the amount of detail and procedure she goes through at the hospital and didn’t appreciate all of the different ways a mask can become infected and in turn infect you.

    2. “Mobile phones” are not “smartphones.” From the “chrisanewman’s” link above: “Given their role as the digital swiss army knife of modern tech, it is no surprise that smartphones are behind much of the growth in this space. Smartphone adoption reached 78 percent during the first half of 2018, up from 29 percent at the beginning of 2011.”

      Our link above ( explicitly refers to smartphone penetration in the UK.

      A smartphone is required for Apple – Google contract tracing, not just a mobile phone.

      1. This doesn’t make any difference to the points I made.

        Your statement that the system’s ineffectiveness are universal is incorrect because the NHS app is not the same as Google and Apple’s app. They do not work the same way or have the same conditions such as the 10 minute interaction you pointed out.

        As an example the NHS app leans heavily on social engineering rather than blindly relying on Bluetooth tracking because of the limitations of the technology which you correctly pointed out.

        Your opinion also seems to be based on the fact that this app will be used in isolation. It won’t be in the UK, it will be used with other tools and data collected from other sources to provide a more complete picture. Things or systems do not always have to be perfect in order for them to be useful.

        The Google and Apple app is just one way of using the technology. The APIs allow other countries, like the UK, to use the technology in different ways which is what’s so great about what they are doing.

        1. You’re obviously missing MDN’s point. Lack of compliance. Even in very compliant Singapore, where citizens uniformly do what they’re told by authorities, their contact-tracing app has been installed by just 12% of the population, as the Guardian excerpt explains above.

  3. Strikes me it would be an equivalent electronic version of the efforts that have ultimately succeeded in Germany and South Korea to make them far less affected by this desease than the rest of us, ie using our phones to do the intensive work that extensive large scale community testing do there. Yes doesn’t replace testing ultimately but helps focus (as we don’t have the capacity overall yet) on those most needing to be tested in the community to help prevent them further infecting. Like it or not few other countries can match what those two have done on the ground, we simply don’t have the regimented population of SK or the efficiency and long term planning of Germany. This App can fill the gap at least potentially till large scale testing and meds or a vaccine can kick in so I guess it’s all our choice if we prefer uneccessary deaths instead. One has to face those unpleasant facts.

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