There’s an app for that, updated

These are difficult times and, while on the way to being easier, we need to be careful.

The Government wants us to use its newly-developed app for smartphones – TraceTogether – so it can contact-trace for Covid-19 exposure but will it work and will we use it?

The PM’s dangling carrot is: sign up to the app and get restrictions eased months earlier.

But the Government admits that at least 40% of smartphone users will need to download, install and allow the monitoring of their movements 100% of the time for this app to work.

And that will mean that, while 40% of the smartphone users are being contact-traced, 60% are not. And, of course, 100% of everybody who doesn’t have a smartphone are not either.

New Scientist reports that a simulation by the University of Oxford found that 80% of smartphone users would need to install the app for it to be effective – a tall order for any country.

And then there are technical issues such as the limitations and inaccuracy in Bluetooth technology needed to make smartphones “see” each other and questions about Bluetooth capability.

Ross Anderson at the University of Cambridge says the range of Bluetooth can vary greatly depending on how people hold their phones, and whether they are indoors or outdoors. He also points out that the signals pass through walls, so people behind screens and in different rooms could be unnecessarily flagged as having had contact. The result could be a flood of false positives. Even the Oxford team, which is advising NHSX on its app, say the accuracy with which Bluetooth can be a useful proxy for virus transmission risk is “currently uncertain”.

New Scientist, 17 April 2020

Given the track record of Government failures in rolling out high-tech projects – think RoboDebt – maybe now is not the time to sell us another one.

The Chief Medical Officer didn’t sound all that confident:

“But we think that the idea of the app is a really excellent one if you’ve programmed it properly, and got the right community buy-in, so we’re actively looking at that.”

Dr Brendan Murphy, ABC News 15 April 2020

And then, of course, there is the whole privacy issue around the tracking data, and here we will just have to take the Government’s word that they will not retain the data afterwards. The Attorney General is ‘examining the privacy implications’.

Rick Baek, Democrats campaigner, Qld

Update 23 Apr:

110 civil society and human rights organisations from around the world have signed a joint statement cautioning about the rapid development and deployment of any covid-19 tracking app before a sound commitment is made to protect the user data and prevent misuse.

“These are extraordinary times, but human rights law still applies. Indeed, the human rights framework is designed to ensure that different rights can be carefully balanced to protect individuals and wider societies. States cannot simply disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis.”

Full statement here.

In a situation where an app is indeed rolled out, can an employer demand to see “a clear history of contact”? Could a delivery service decline to deliver in a face to face situation unless one is clear according to the app? 

And how long will this tracking go on? Until a vaccine is rolled out worldwide? Until the Chief Medical Officer says tracking is no longer needed?

Or just until the Government says so? 

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