UK government rolls out a second attempt at contact tracing

Four months after an earlier UK contact-tracing app was scrapped, the UK government has given the green light to a new and improved version, with trials that started Thursday.

The trial pool has been widened this time to include residents on the Isle of Wight alongside residents in the London borough of Newham and selected NHS volunteers.

The new contact-tracing app – a critical element in the fight to stamp out the COVID-19 pandemic – differs from its predecessor in several ways. In particular, the UK government this time decided to adopt Google and Apple’s decentralised model.

This approach should help mitigate some of the security and privacy concerns that dogged the earlier version and ensure a larger number of contacts is properly detected. (Because Apple restricts how Bluetooth is used by third-party apps, the technology used in the UK government’s previous attempt only detected 4% of iPhones.)

“From a privacy perspective [the decentralised model] is, in principle, a huge relief,” said Ben Rapp, founder and principal at Securys Limited. “It significantly reduces the risk of the app being used for other kinds of surveillance and of the data being repurposed by other arms of government in the future.”

Rapp also praised the redrafted privacy notice from NHSX, saying it was clearly taking privacy concerns more seriously this time. “Both the main privacy notice and the detailed supplementary version are clear and well-drafted and reflect appropriate decisions about the lawful basis for processing and the safeguards for storage and retention of data,” Rapp said.

He also noted that by publishing the DPIA and source code, NHSX had demonstrated an “admirable exercise in transparency.”

What’s new in V2.0?

The new app also has additional features that reflect the changing nature of the UK’s current lockdown restrictions, namely a QR barcode scanning facility, so users can check in when they visit a venue and be told if others there later test positive for the coronavirus.

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