Even before its COVID-19 app launches, UK considers switching to Apple’s contact-tracing approach

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Second thoughts on Apple/Google contact tracing by NHS?
Photo: World Health Organization

Great Britain’s National Health Service reportedly asked the developers of its COVID-19 app to investigate switching to Apple and Google’s contact-tracing approach even as its U.K. launch approaches. The move came after widespread concerns over privacy issues and battery life, according to a published report Wednesday.

The Financial Times reports that a contract between the National Health Service’s technology division and a Switzerland-based I.T. firm has ordered it to investigate the feasibility of implementing the Apple and Google Exposure Notifications API.

An NHSX spokesperson confirmed the contract. “We’ve been working with Apple and Google throughout the app’s development and it’s quite right and normal to continue to refine the app,” an NHSX official told the Financial Times.

Late last month, the NSHX rejected the Apple/Google solution. The U.K. plans to launch its NHS COVID-19 app later this week after a brief trial on the Isle of Wight.

Differences and criticisms mount for U.K. government

The NHS solution for COVID-19 exposure notifications has faced growing criticism in the past few weeks, even before it goes live for the public to use.

Marking the magnitude of the pandemic, Apple and Google combined forces to offer a framework for individual government apps. The U.K. initially didn’t like the tech rivals’ jointly developed approach and decided to go it alone.

The Apple/Google approach stores most of the data about who someone comes into contact with on each phone, or what is called a decentralized approach. In contrast, the U.K.’s centralized approach sends all data to a central server, raising severe privacy concerns. 

The NHSX defended its system by saying it will allow for the collection of more data about the spread of the coronavirus. It also said its contact-tracing system will be quicker to roll out. The data in the central server — although anonymized — supposedly will help the government track the disease more closely, to correct errors, find patterns, and refine the product.

But the Apple/Google API can “bake” their system deep in a smartphone’s operating system, minimizing security and battery problems. Those governments that don’t use the Apple/Google system may find their apps struggling to perform properly.

Another reported problem not immediately addressed by the NHS: issues with mobile phones not being able to use the contract-tracing app if they are locked and left unused for long periods of time. The Apple/Google solution avoid this problem.

Last weekend, the German government switched to the Apple/Google approach. Previously, Germany pursued a system more like the NHS app. 

The U.K. government said it needs at least 60% of the population to use its app if it is to be effective. If battery problems and privacy concerns become major issues, the app could turn off the public from using it.

Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at Newcastle University in England, believes the two systems offer stark tradeoffs. However, she said she thinks the decentralized approach holds some strong advantages.

“There is quite impressive scientific evidence that the decentralized solution [from Apple and Google] may work equally well to the NHS approach,” Edwards told Cult of Mac. “But what it may come down to is that [the NHS] was so slow off the blocks with mass testing that it does seem like the decentralized solution works better if you start with a confirmed finding of positive coronavirus infection.”