What is the Track (people who have symptoms or become infected) and Trace (the people those infected have come in close proximity to) App?
Well, it’s an App like all your other mobile phone apps. Its intention is to automate manual track and trace operations to spot people who have come into near contact with someone who has COVID-19 by sending out alerts. Alerted people are expected to go into self-isolation, slowing down the spread of the virus.
However, the App is only one part of the Track and Trace solution being developed for use in England. Although with less benefits, the App can still work using people power (the volunteers being talked about in the news) and the back-office system (office based computer system for internal use).
There are also other Track and Trace Apps in existence, developed and in use outside of England Apple and Google) without an underlying backend system. This article discusses the Track and Trace system proposed for adoption in this country.
How it works
The App relies on trying to trace anybody who, for a designated period of time, has been in close proximity to an individual deemed to to have, or potentially have, coronavirus. It relies on the infected and traced individuals having a smart phone with the App installed and Bluetooth active. Phones will detect closeness to others using the Bluetooth signalling.
If a phone owner believes they have contracted coronavirus or are showing symptoms they can fill in a form on the app (answering questions in line with the NHS Coronavirus Status Checker below).
The answers are processed to assess the likelihood of how infections that person may be. The system will automatically send alerts to phones that were recorded as having been in close proximity to the phone of the infected. It can issue advice to those traced, on whether to go into quarantine, observe social distancing, taking a test or other recommendations.
Who IS writing the App?
The UK Government has decided to write its own App, as announced by health secretary Matt Hancock in a daily pandemic press briefing in early April. A highly risky approach? Quite possibly? Writing any new application takes time to bed in and is likely to need fixes in its early days. Just starting up a development in itself takes time. Even on the 27th May, long after it was supposed to have been tested in the Isle of White, the government has admitted in Select Committee, that the Track and Trace system will not be complete before it is launched.
Apple and Google already have an App that can be used and it seems odd that we do not adopt one of them. Instead, the government has committed to a world beating App. It is unlikely to deliver further benefits than the alternatives while meeting the essential objective of minimising the spread of COVID-19.
A big problem with Tracing Apps is that they have to run in a smart phone’s foreground. Apple (who released their US facing App) and Google (scheduled to release in May) aim to release a solution that allows the App to run in the phone’s background.
Who will know who has been infected?
Unlike the Google or Apple equivalent, the UK system will hold data in a centralised database. Perhaps this approach is favoured by our government to enable the system to be used without an App. The use of data will by law need to be consented to by people using the system under GDPR. At the time of writing, it remains to be seen what the consent declaration will state that data is being used in connection with.
Matt Hancock has stated “All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards and would only be used for NHS care and search, and we won’t hold it any longer then it’s needed”. The questions remain, whose ethics, and what the stated need is!
Like any other system it is open to hacking.
Even if the system does include an App, it will be used on an opt-in basis only. As summarised in the Problems section of this article, that may have a drastic impact on any effectiveness. Allegedly Singapore’s public is far more savvy with technology and they have only had circa 12% of its population downloading their App (source: tracetogether.gov.sg)
How Reliable is a Test?
A result will not always be 100% guaranteed as accurate.
Bluetooth can detect another mobile phone up to 5 metres. The signal can also transmit through walls. Also, as it is 5 metres, you could still be socially distancing and yet receive an alert.
Similar false alerts would be issued where a person has mistakenly believed they have symptoms or even the virus.
Still less dangerous that way than the other way round!
More importantly, there is a risk it ignores symptoms other than fever or coughs.
Other Potential Problems
- Even without the app and using call centre staff instead, how do we know the agent caller is genuine?
- Bluetooth signals can be transmitted through solid objects such as walls leading to misleading proximity records.
- Mis-use allowing people not owning a the phone to report they were ill without any verification.
- Not everybody has a smart phone.
- Smart phone owners may not have their Bluetooth switched on.
- Relying on track and trace without an app will be extremely time consuming and prone to human error.
- Around 60% of the population or 80% smartphone users will need to be using it.
- Actual physical swab testing will still be needed in addition to an App in order to provide reliable information. As stated earlier, not everyone will have symptoms while other symptoms may not result in Coronavirus.
- Serco, a key organisation involved in Track and Trace has recently apologised for accidentally breaching thousands of subscribers details data.
As at 28th May, the App is still beset with issues and no specific date has been provided for eventual release. So Track and Trace it is, and a serious part of it not fit to go. Hardly world beating!