Concerns raised over new app being trialled on the IW

By Carole Dennett May 7, 2020

Letters will be delivered to Island households today and until Monday, encouraging Islanders to download the app developed by NHSX, digital development partners of the NHS, to assist with the new test, track and trace approach to fighting the Covid-19 virus. The app is being tested on the Isle of Wight by the Government prior to a planned national rollout over the coming weeks. Health Secretary Matthew Hancock has said that it is the ‘civic duty’ of Islanders to download the app in advance of it being used more widely.

However, there have been reports in the national press that Swiss software developers Zuhlke Engineering, have been asked to investigate the app, which has been developed uniquely for the NHS, moving to use the standard being developed by Apple and Google who have been working with a number of other countries.  The technology giants have been backing the development of decentralised platforms for iPhones and Android phones that warn users if they have been near an infected person, but do not create a central database of information. Germany, which had also been developing a unique approach changed last month to using the technology used by the Apple/Google model.

A Financial Times article published yesterday says that the requirement for the developers to investigate switching to a the Apple/Google standard follows concerns about whether the app will work properly, worries from privacy campaigners about the NHSX app holding too much information on a central database, and doubts whether the app will be compatible with contact-tracing systems used elsewhere, causing potential problems for Britons wishing to travel abroad in the future.

A new £3.8 million contract between NHSX and Zuhike Engineering, leaked to Financial Times journalists requires the software developers to ‘investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs [used to access parts of the operating system] within the existing proximity mobile application and platform’, with the work due to be completed by mid-May.  An NHSX spokesman told the Financial Times: ‘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.’

It has also been pointed out that there is the potential for the app to be open to abuse because users can trigger alerts to all the people they have been in contact with simply by contacting the NHS and saying they may have symptoms of the virus.  The app would then warn all contacts that they may have been in contact with an infected person and should consider self-isolating.