UK Govt Set to Release App that Tracks Contacts of Coronavirus Patients

A tourist wearing a mask checks his cellphone in front of Buckingham Palace in London on M
GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom is set to release an app that would track the movements and contacts of those infected with coronavirus, raising concerns that it could jeopardise citizens’ privacy and be used as a means of social control.

The NHSX, the technology arm of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), is set to release a coronavirus tracking app that would monitor the GPS location data and Bluetooth activity of those who install it.

“NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible,” NHSX chief Matthew Gould told the BBC.

Through the app, those who show signs of coronavirus will be able to order a home test for the virus and if they test positive a notification will be sent to everyone they came in contact with over the previous days.

The stated aim of the app is to reduce the need for a lockdown, easing the economic strain imposed on the country, say the Oxford University team charged with developing the app.

“The constrictions that we’re currently under place [many people] under severe strain,” said Professor Christophe Fraser.

“Therefore if you have the ability with a bit more information and the use of an app to relax a lockdown, that could provide very substantial and direct benefits. Also, I think a substantial number of lives can be saved,” he added.

The app will not be made mandatory, at least not initially, but academics say that at least half of the country would need to install it for it to be effective. It is set to be released to the public either shortly before or after the nationwide lockdown is lifted.

A similar app was used in China during the height of the pandemic there. The app was not made mandatory by the government; however, people who refused to install the app were barred from entering public spaces and from using public transport.

In South Korea, the government sent text messages containing the details of infected patients, such as their age, gender, and recent locations to those who came within 100 metres of an infected person, Sky News reports.

Professor Michael Parker, a member of the Oxford-based project, said that he did not believe that the United Kingdom would need to impose the same level of draconian measures for the app to be effective, but said that private businesses may impose restrictions based on the app.

“My favourite restaurant might ask me to show that I was low-risk before allowing me into a crowded place, and I think that would be a perfectly reasonable price to pay for this step towards returning to normal life,” Parker told the BBC.

“This is a really unusual situation where lives are at risk, so there is a case to be made to make at least some actions compulsory — but there would need to be a really clear case for that and careful oversight,” he added.

In an open letter sent to the head of NHSX and to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a group of “responsible technologists” decried the project, writing that “location and contact tracking technology could be used as a means of social control”.

Follow Kurt on Twitter at @KurtZindulka


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