Coronavirus: What went wrong with the UK's contact tracing app?
Graphical representation showing a British app icon next to an Apple / Google app
After months of work, the UK has given up its corona virus tracing app and started a debt game between the government and two of the world's largest technology companies. So what went wrong?
At the end of March I received a text from a senior figure in the UK technology industry. This person said she was helping the NHS "on a very large project that will start in a few days and potentially save hundreds of thousands of Britons".
It was the first time I knew about the plan to create a contact tracking app, a project that soon seemed to be the focus of the government's strategy to defeat the coronavirus and help all of us get out of the block .
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The technology line had somehow assumed I could be a consultant to the project - I made it clear that this might not be my role, but I was keen to keep track of its progress.
Now, almost three months later, after deadline for deadline has been missed, the direction has changed radically. The previously developed app is being scrapped and a new approach is being tested on the basis of a system created by Apple and Google.
However, there is no guarantee when this will ever be introduced. So what went wrong?
When the NHSX Digital Division team was put together, they were told that they were embarking on an important mission. According to a presentation, the team was shown that the Covid 19 app would have four goals:
Stop or slow down the epidemic
Control patient flow in hospitals
Help people return to normal life
Collect secondary data for use by the NHS and strategic leaders
After installing it on a user's phone, the app used Bluetooth to record other people they came in close contact with - provided they had the app installed too. Then, when someone tested positive for the virus, warnings were sent to their close contacts over the past few days asking them to quarantine.
Graphic to explain the difference between centralized and decentralized apps
The epidemiological expertise was provided by a team of Oxford scientists who had argued that there was an urgent need to identify people who were spreading the virus without knowing it. "Very quick contact tracking was probably essential," says one of the Oxford employees, Dr. David Bonsall. "And smartphones have the technological ability to speed up this process."
However, using the Bluetooth connection on smartphones to detect contacts was an untested technology. Still, the team was inspired by Singapore who released their Trace Together app using this system.
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However, it quickly became clear that using Bluetooth was difficult. According to reports from Singapore, users were reluctant to download the app because it had to be kept open on the phone, which would drain the battery.
On April 10th, a surprising announcement came from Google and Apple. The two technology giants, whose software virtually all smartphones in the world depend on, said they would develop a system that would make Bluetooth apps for contact tracking work smoothly. But there was a catch: only data protection-oriented apps can use the platform.
Apple and Google preferred decentralized apps where the comparison between infected people and their contact list took place between their cell phones. The alternative was to perform the comparison on a central computer that belongs to a health authority and on which a lot of very confidential information is stored.
The app, developed by the NHS, was based on a centralized model, which the Oxford scientists believed was vital for healthcare to properly monitor virus outbreaks.
Two days later, Health Minister Matt Hancock enthusiastically unveiled plans for the Covid-19 app and promised, "All data will be treated to the highest ethical and security standards and used only for NHS care and research." .
But activists, politicians and technology experts immediately raised privacy concerns. "I acknowledge the overwhelming power of public health arguments for a centralized system, but I also have 25 years of experience that the NHS is incompetent in developing systems and repeatedly breaking its privacy promises," said Prof. Ross Anderson of the Cambridge University.
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With the first test of the app at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, however, the project picked up speed. The process was carried out under artificial conditions, with soldiers and women placing phones side by side on tables to see what had happened.
Data protection-conscious Germany is the youngest country to have switched its app to the decentralized model using the Apple and Google systems. It seemed like Apple had made it clear that it would not work with a centralized app.
Michael Veale, a British scientist working with a consortium that develops decentralized apps, warned that the NHS app was on the wrong track, and asked on Twitter: "Will Britain push an app that doesn't work on iPhones? This has destroyed acceptance in Singapore. " ? "
But Britain has pushed ahead with a process on the Isle of Wight. When it started, Mr. Hancock told the public that they had a "duty" to download the app as soon as it was available, and that it was crucial "to get our freedom back" if the blockage were relaxed.
The first look at the app showed that asking users if they had a fever or persistent cough was very easy. However, all symptom warnings sent to contacts only corresponded to the standard recommendations "Stay alert" - test results could not be entered into the app at this time. Many residents were confused.
However, the fact that the app was quickly downloaded by more than half of the island's smartphone users led to the government calling the test a success.
In the meantime, the Financial Times announced that the government had hired a Swiss software developer to create a second app using Apple and Google technology. NHS insiders quickly downplayed the importance of this move - although they admitted that "Downing Street is getting nervous".
Work continued on a second, more complex version of the original app, which was to be tested again before a national rollout on the Isle of Wight - although the mid-May deadline had not been met.
On May 20, however, it became clear that the government's focus was on manual contact tracking. The prime minister announced that a "world's best" traceability system would be launched in early June, although number 10 stressed that the app's contribution to the system would come a little later.
When May came to an end, Baroness Dido Harding, head of the more extensive test and trace program, said the app was the "cherry on the cake" of the project. It was no longer the cake itself.
By the beginning of June, further deadlines for the national publication of the app had come and gone. Three weeks after the Isle of Wight trial began, residents became restless and there was very little information about how it went or when an updated version of the app came.
France launched its centralized Stop-Covid app, which was heavily criticized by data protection fighters, and Digital Minister Cedric O said 600,000 downloads in the first few hours were "a good start".
Contact tracking graphic
On June 4, Economics Minister Nadhim Zadhawi was persuaded that the app should be ready by the end of the month, but this was the final deadline that would be promised.
Singapore, which continued to struggle to get its contact tracking app up and running, announced plans to provide a portable device to all citizens, in the hope that this would do a better job than a smartphone.
Germany, the largest country, launched a decentralized app on the Apple / Google platform on June 14. It quickly surpassed France in terms of downloads, and almost 10% of the population installed it.
The British government's silence on the NHS app has now been deafening. What happened?
At noon on June 18, everything became clear. The BBC has spread the story that the government is giving up the centralized app and switching to something based on Google and Apple technology. Despite all the twists, the Isle of Wight test found a catastrophic error in the app - 96% of contacts with Apple iPhones could not be recognized.
The guilt game has already started. Mr. Hancock and some of the scientists working with the NHS think Apple should have been more cooperative. Technology experts and privacy activists say they warned months ago how this story would end.
Apple said it did not know that the UK was working on a "hybrid" version of the NHS Coronavirus contact tracking app using the technology developed by Google.
There is now little evidence worldwide that smartphone apps that use Bluetooth are an effective method of contact tracking. As early as March it seemed that the enormously powerful devices that most of us carry with us could help us get out of this health crisis. Now it looks like a person at the end of a phone is a far better option.
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