Authoritarian Tech

The UK spent millions on a Covid-19 tracking app and then abandoned it

UK withdraws coronavirus app
Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images

Last month, Amber Beard tested out and wrote about a new Covid-19 tracking app that the UK government was trialing on the Isle of Wight.

Beard explained how the app, named NHS Covid-19, was initially met with enthusiasm by residents and that a reported 65% downloaded it. 

However, NHS Covid-19 — which used Bluetooth technology to collect data from phones — raised concerns among privacy advocates and experts, who said it did not allow users enough control over how their data was shared and stored. 

The app used a so-called centralized approach, that enabled the collection of information in a central database, to which law enforcement and intelligence agencies could potentially gain access. 

According to Gus Hosein, executive director at Privacy International, which has been monitoring coronavirus tracking apps, there is no information as to whether data was being stored centrally or what was being done with it.

“When the government embarked on their app, the app was necessary. The government was failing at containment, was failing at testing, and had no tracing initiatives. So the app was being asked to do the impossible: track our interactions that we don’t remember, in the absence of a real contact tracing process; help us identify to others if we feel unwell, in the absence of a test; and require others to isolate in the absence of government leadership on quarantining. No app could do all of this,” said Hosein, via email.

After over a month on trial and $13.5m in costs, the UK government decided to withdraw the app. One of the reasons cited was the app’s poor performance with iPhones, owing to incompatibility with Apple’s iOS operating system. 

Now, the UK government has decided to develop a new app that could be more compatible with systems designed by Apple and Google. The new app is to run with a so-called decentralized approach, which is considered to be less invasive to privacy, allowing officials less access to user data. 

Coda Story has covered how Covid-19 apps have invoked privacy concerns in other European countries such as Italy and Germany, both of which have switched to decentralized apps after initially following a centralized model, similar to that used by NHS Covid-19. Our reporters have also looked into the implications of tracking apps in Pakistan and India.

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Mariam Kiparoidze

Mariam Kiparoidze is an associate producer at Coda Story.

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