Government u-turns on contact tracing app

The UK government is changing its Coronavirus contact tracing app to a model based on technology provided by Apple and Google.

The previous centralised design carried out the contact-matches on a remote server, while the decentralised Apple/Google model carries the process out on the mobile, making it more difficult for the authorities or hackers to de-anonymise the records and use them for other means. This design has been promoted as being more privacy-focused, but could give epidemiologists access to less data.

The switch means that the NHS app will be able overcome a limitation of iPhones and carry out Bluetooth 'handshakes' when the software is running in the background. It will also be easier to make the app compatible with other countries' counterparts, which are based on the same system - including those in Ireland and Germany.

Earlier this week, the European Commission agreed a technical framework to enable contact tracing apps to work across national borders, following last month's confirmation of interoperability guidelines.

The government confirmed last month that it had been working on a second contact tracing app. Swiss-based consultancy Zühlke Engineering was hired to undertake an investigation of Apple and Google’s system.

Contact tracing apps are designed to help prevent a second wave of the pandemic, by logging when two people have been in close proximity to each other for a substantial period of time. If one of them is later diagnosed with the virus, an alert can be sent to others they have recently been close to, telling them to get tested or self-isolate.

The BBC reported that a former Apple executive Simon Thompson was taking charge of project - taking over from NHSX's Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis - which has now been delayed until the winter, having originally been scheduled for a launch this month.

The NHS app was tested on the Isle of Wight in May, but speaking to parliament’s science and technology select committee yesterday, the minister for innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care Lord Bethell said: “We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t the priority for us at the moment."

He admitted that was "an expectation of management answer" and that an exact date could not be given.

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