The NHS is Swapping the Contact Tracing App Over to the Apple/Google API [Updated]

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Update 16:30: Since this original story broke, there have been some updates that are worth mentioning. So here they are.

The main change is that the actual switch to the Apple/Google API will only be finalised when Baron Dido Harding, who is in charge of the track-and-trace programme, decides it’s fit for purpose. If she doesn’t, we’re stuck with the shitty original system.

The NHS has been testing both systems against one another, and discovered the Apple/Google API can recognise 99% of iPhones and Androids, though its distance calculations are weaker. Meanwhile the NHSX app can only recognise about 4% of iPhones and 75% of Androids, but can calculate distances much better.

On top of this the government is investigating other systems that focus on wearable technology – like the system currently implemented in Singapore where users have a dedicated Bluetooth dongle that connects with other Bluetooth dongles, and whose data can only be accessed if you hand it over to healthcare officials after a positive COVID-19 test.

As of this afternoon the current ETA for the wider app rollout is Autumn. That’s better than winter, but it’s still pretty horrific. And in the meantime we’re left with an increase focus on the manual contact tracing system operated by human beings.

Original story follows:

The shitshow continues! After news this morning that the NHS track-and-trace app was no longer considered a priority by the government, is now due for “winter” rather than next month, and an offer by Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales to pay to swap our system over to the Germany’s system, some interesting news has hit us. According to BBC News, the app is being switched over to the system developed by Apple and Google.

Apple and Google have been working together to develop an API that governments and health services could build on to develop their own app to try to trace and contain the spread of the coronavirus that’s literally plaguing the planet.

Our government decided it didn’t want to do that, because the Apple/Google method involves a number of caveats aimed at preserving user privacy. Caveats like no location tracking, no storing data in a centralised location, and the pledge to delete everything once the pandemic was over. The NHS app was to store app in a centralised database (for research purposes, according to NHSX), forces you to keep you phone’s location on, and the promise that data would only be anonymised after the pandemic is over – not deleted. It was also heavily criticised for being invasive, being riddled with security flaws, and even has to handle a legal challenge over the use of identifiable user data.

Apparently NHSX were ‘investigating’ the possibility of switching to the Apple/Google model as early as 7th May, and while that option was apparently always on the cards nothing ever came of it until today.

The news has yet to be confirmed by the government, but according to the BBC this means the system will now go decentralised (no doubt appeasing privacy advocates somewhat) while retaining the same user interface. On top of this using an Apple-developed API gets around limitations the company placed on background Bluetooth on iPhones, and makes it more compatible with other Google/Apple-based apps developed by other countries.

Hopefully this means the damn thing was a) not be a total privacy nightmare b) not broken and c) not delayed to the end of time. The obvious downside is that there will be less research data available, which is the official reasoning behind the way the original app was set up.

As much as big business has built a reputation for not being trustworthy, the fact the government thought it could do better than two companies with over two decades of collective experience working with apps, only to realise that arrogance was a colossal mistake, is really fucking embarrassing. But at least someone has realised it’s better late than never. [BBC News]

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