If you cast your mind back to the end of April, the government were very excited about a new contact-tracing app to go on your smartphone. Since then, we’ve got a covid-19 track and trace system up and running quite nicely, but without the app. So what happened to it?
Well, they started running trials on the Isle of Wight back on the 7th May. There were bits and pieces of news about it for the first couple of weeks, but then it all went a bit quiet – until a few days ago.
Unfortunately, the trial wasn’t as successful as the developers had hoped. There were various issues with the app – most of them boring and technical – but a lot of them boiled down to privacy. The system that the government wanted to use collected and stored information in a way that privacy experts weren’t entirely comfortable with.
And that meant Apple and Google weren’t very co-operative, and the app developer had to work around the security and privacy features of your phone. Not ideal. In fact, Apple’s security is so tight on things like this that the app didn’t really work at all on iPhones.
Apple and Google have their own system that they’ve come up with together – one that doesn’t have all the privacy issues that people are worried about – but the information it gives isn’t as useful to the government. According to the government, the main problem with their system is that it’s not that great at estimating the distance between people. Which means you could end up with a lot of “false positives” – people being warned to self-isolate when they were never actually within 2 metres of someone with symptoms.
So on Thursday last week, we got an update about the app. The developers who made the original NHS app say they’re going to share their method for estimating distance with Apple and Google, in the hopes that they can improve the system. That way, the government gets an app that works more the way they want it to, but without having to use dodgy work-arounds to do it. Apple and Google are already quite good at this stuff, though, so they might not learn anything new!
The plan is to bring out an app some time in the autumn – with or without a fancy automatic contact-tracing system (almost certainly “without”, if we’re being honest). You’ll be able to use it to get all the latest advice, report symptoms to the NHS, order a test and check your results. And then when (if) the government reckon the tracking technology is good enough, you’ll be able to choose to use it if you want to.
So there you go.
I can’t say I’m all that surprised. Phones aren’t designed to do this sort of thing – they’re phones – so this was always going to be really, really hard. And trying to work against Apple on their own iPhones? That was doomed from the start, frankly.
We shall see anyway. Do you mind if I don’t hold my breath..?