Government confirms work on second contact tracing app

The government is preparing to replace the Coronavirus contact tracing app it is currently trialling on the Isle of Wight, communities secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed yesterday.

The Financial Times reported on Friday that the NHS had begun developing a second app, which will use technology provided by Google and Apple, after concerns were raised about the initial app’s centralised system.

Andrew Marr asked Jenrick about the plans on Sunday, to which he responded that the government was learning lessons from other countries' approaches. “If we need to change our app we will do,” he said. “That is the point of piloting this before we take it national.”

The app being trialled on the Isle of Wight should enable smartphone users who have come into contact with someone who has the virus to receive an alert that would enable them to then self-isolate. About 50,000 people on the island have downloaded the app, out of a population of 141,000, said Jenrick.

After repeated warnings that the UK will be an outlier if it insists on using its own centralised app rather than relying on Google and Apple’s technology, rights groups and MPs said late last week that the lack of data protection could mean that the app would be illegal.

The Swiss-based consultancy Zühlke Engineering has therefore been hired to undertake a two-week investigation of Apple and Google’s system “within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”.

Previously, NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould told a parliamentary committee that the decision to build the app without the involvement of the Big Tech firms was not set in stone. “If it becomes clear that a different approach is a better one and achieves the things that we need to achieve more effectively, we will change.

“We are not particularly wedded to a single approach - it is a very pragmatic decision about which approach is likely to get the results that we need.”

The NHS has provided a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) of the Isle of Wight Trial, asking the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to identify any potential risks.

An ICO spokesperson said: “We are reviewing the DPIA for NHSX’s pilot of its contact tracing app in the Isle of Wight, we’ll feedback our comments as quickly as possible so that they can be usefully included in the learnings from the trial.”

Michael Veale, a privacy expert at UCL, analysed the DPIA and warned that it indicates significant legal flaws

“The DPIA reads like a fight between PR folk wanting to say it is anonymous, and data protection folk needing to say legally, it is not,” he commented on Twitter. “DPIAs are no place for PR, this data is not anonymous.”

Veale went on to explain that the DPIA states collecting personal data is always done voluntarily. “It does not properly admit that this is not true: by design, the NHSX app works by other people uploading information about you, including third parties you were co-located with.”

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