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UK tracking software for coronavirus contacts may request users to share location data

BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 10 :Symbol photo of the coronavirus crisis. Diagnosis. COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 on March 10, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Health authorities around the world are concerned about the novel coronavirus. More and more countries are reporting diseases and new infections. (Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images)

More information was received on the UK authorities’ creation of a coronavirus contact tracking app. NHSX CEO Matthew Gould said today that future versions of the application may ask people to share location information to help policymakers learn more about the spread of the virus.

The UK Science & Technology Committee today heard testimony from Gould, who is leading the digital transformation unit of the UK National Health Service.

Nevertheless, unresolved concerns on the exact position of the UK intelligence agency in crucial decisions on the basic design of the device NHSX make it impossible for Gould to disregard the position of the GCHQ committee.

In a limited geographical area in the next 1-2 weeks, a core version of the NHSX coronavirus contacts tracing software is to be tested on a Gould — who said it will be “technically” ready for broader release in 2-3 weeks.

He stressed, that any start should be part of a larger government plan, including thorough testing and handling of contacts and a significant effort to educate the public as part of the joint response to the virus on the intent and value of the device.

For potential versions of the app, Gould indicated that users would include additional details – for instance, their position – to help epidemiologists identify hot spots for infections, while stressing that these extra contributions are voluntary.


“Iterate the script. We have worked on it quickly since the beginning of the situation, but the first version we published does not contain everything we needed, “he said. “We are very keen, however, that later versions will give people more details if they want to.

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“For instance, if we were prepared not only for anonymous proximity contacts, but also for where these contacts took place, epidemiologically, it would be very useful, because this would allow us to know that certain places, certain sectors, or anything else was a particular source of nearby contacts which became problematic in the aftermath.”

“It would be extremely important for us, if people were willing to do so-and it is I believe that a large part of people would be willing to-as it will give us a good insight into the manner in which the virus has spread,” he continues.

The basic version of the NHSX touch tracking software currently designed to monitor position is not developed. Rather, Bluetooth will be used as an infection risk proxy for phone users to transfer pseudonymised identities to a central server later in the process of determining an infection risk associated with the contacts of a individual.

Bluetooth tracking is now built into national contacts, which track applications across Europe and elsewhere, while device architectures can differ significantly.

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The UK is notable that, after Germany had changed choice earlier this week, it is one of now a relatively few European countries that have chosen a centralized model for tracing coronavirus contacts.

France plans to use a centralized protocol at the moment as well. But countries like Estonia, Switzerland and Spain have said that decentralized applications should be introduced – that means that infection risk calculations are made locally, on devices and that social diagram data will not be transferred to a central government.

Centralized approaches to communication monitoring of coronavirus have posed serious questions about privacy because the central server control authority can access and reconnect social graph data stored on a central server.

Apple and Google are both collaborating with open solutions on a web collaborative API for national coronavirus contacts, which means countries that wish to oppose the grain smartphone application will face technological obstacles, such as battery discharge and usability.

The committee asked Gould about the decision of NHSX to develop its own app architecture, which means working to minimize problems like the drain of the battery because it can’t just plug into the Apple Google API. It wanted to do a little more work. The unit told BBC yesterday how it plans to do it, but it will not use the API with the energy efficiency that will be given to its workaround.

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We work with a number of other countries very closely. It’s not just core Bluetooth technology – which is a huge part of it – that’s context and how it applies to monitoring, tracking and all such stuff. They exchange code. They exchange technological solutions so there’s plenty of collaboration. A certain amount also obviously needs to be incorporated into the national strategy, “Gould said, when asked why the NHSX is making a fairly high effort, instead of using protocols developed elsewhere, to establish its own custom standardized program.

Ayeni Sylvester
the authorAyeni Sylvester

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