COVID-19 is here and it is here to stay for a while unless a trust-worthy, working vaccine is available for a large population in the world. When the Pandemic hit and countries started to go into lockdown, Scientists and leaders from around the world started to develop strategies on how to minimize the spread of the virus. The UK Government started to ramp up the testing and tracing by developing a test and trace system which to date has cost around £12 Billion to the taxpayers. As part of this system, the NHS COVID-19 Application ‘only’ cost £35 Million including £11 Million for a previous version which never went live. Astonishing, isn’t it?
The virus as we all know spreads from human contact, so most of the countries in the world started to adopt contact tracing in some shape. Developing countries with less resources were doing it manually using local level administration whereas many countries including the UK developed their own Contact Tracing Applications based on Google and Apple technologies. Google and Apple are giants of the technology world and already have a big chunk of market share for smartphones and computers. They already have location data from every phone that is operated using Apple iOS or Android (by Google), so it is indeed a piece of cake for them (and some more data as well).
In this article I will try to explain how NHS Track and Trace Application works, its intended benefits along with some horrendous bottlenecks and how it is seen as yet another application tracking users data which can then later be used in manipulating their opinions.
The NHS COVID-19 App
First of all, let’s just see what’s all the fuss about this COVID-19 app that according to official figures, 19 million users have downloaded so far and around £25million will be spent on it during the current financial year according to a Public Accounts Committee Hearing. To put into simple terms, if you have registered on the NHS-COVID app (shown in the screenshot below), it will notify you if any COVID-Positive patient is found near a place you’ve been to or in your surroundings with his app will then ask you to self-isolate, which in all fairness, is the only way to prevent the spread of the virus. However, as most people find it annoying and boring, a lot of people do not bother installing the app so unless they themselves show the symptoms or someone from their household does, they will unlikely be asked to self-isolate even if they were in contact with a COVID-Positive Patient.
What Went Wrong...
One of the biggest blunders of this app happened when quite a few users received ‘False Alarm’ that they were in contact with a COVID-Positive patient. When the users clicked the notification, nothing popped up. This made a lot of people anxious and worried and also people started to lose confidence in the contact tracing system. One user told the Sky News that he received the notification to self-isolate the next day after downloading the app and self-isolated just to be on the safe side. another user said she has lost confidence in the app after the Department of Health and Social Care admitted that this notification was by default sent by Google and Apple systems. This was another setback for the Health Department after they faced immense criticism of their handling of the Coronavirus, costing thousands of lives.
A few days ago, Google and Apple provided the updates which have tried to fix this error and this should not be repeated again, providing more accurate information and reducing the unnecessary isolations. Although this app was pitched as an alternative to the blanket lockdowns, it still hasn’t delivered on the promise on the pressure on the government as it has announced a second national lockdown amid the second wave of the Coronavirus.
The App and the Privacy…
Finally, let’s discuss the privacy concerns this NHS COVID-19 app brings with itself. As the majority of us have been flocking outside to dine and have drinks at the pubs since August, we all must have noticed a QR Code at some point, which is displayed at all the retail and hospitality outlets. This QR code helps you record your presence at a specific location and then it is recorded in case a positive covid patient has been to that place, everyone who visited on that specific time must be sent the alerts.
This track and trace generates a huge amount of data. Almost 19 million users are using this app in England and Wales and these users are generating data not just regarding the location but the choices they are making to travel, leisure, food and retail etc. Although officially, in the terms and conditions it is written that this data will be kept confidential and the user can delete this at any time by deleting the application. But, as they say, you can fool some people most of the time but, you can’t fool all the people, all the time.
In my personal opinion, in today’s world, privacy is a myth with technology giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon are collecting data from billions of users and using that data to manipulate the choices that we make in our daily lives. But still, as this app is backed by the government, the users of this App must be taken into confidence regarding the data that is being collected and how this data is being used. The clarity in this regard must be provided to give people the confidence so that the majority of the population start using it to reap the full benefits from track and trace and to achieve the most important goal which is to reduce the spread of this deadly disease.
Image: Unsplash @visuals