Like many other countries, the UK government has announced plans for a COVID-19 tracing app to help limit the spread of the virus. An app is currently undergoing testing on the Isle of Wight before being rolled out to the rest of the country later this year.
But even before the app goes live there are concerns that the project will fail.
Helping reduce local infections
Contact tracing apps are supposed to help contain local outbreaks of coronavirus. You download an app and register for the service. The app runs in the background, using Bluetooth to detect the other people you come into contact with.
If you start to exhibit symptoms, you are tested for the virus. If the result is positive, the app notifies everyone you have been in contact with, advising them that they must go into self-isolation for 14 days.
People are sceptical
The app was originally due to go live in April, but it has been delayed. Now there are some suggestions that the app will not be released until the Winter.
But there is a bigger problem facing contact tracing – people don’t want to download the app.
Questions about privacy and security
One study found that 48% of people are concerned the contract trading app could be hijacked by scammers. They expect cyber criminals to use the system to launch phishing attacks. They also believe that they wouldn’t be able to tell a genuine message from a fake one.
Others are extremely concerned about privacy. Every app user can be personally identified, and the government has confirmed that data collected by the app will be retained for many years after the pandemic ends. Some believe that the government has no reason to keep details of their social circles and meetings once COVID-19 stops spreading.
Not just a British problem
In countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, contact tracing has been extremely effective at containing the virus. However, citizens have been forced by their governments to comply; they are also used to less privacy and increased monitoring by the authorities.
In other countries where individuals enjoy a high degree of personal freedom, contact tracing apps will be optional. But at the same time, many citizens would prefer that their data is anonymous to protect their privacy. In both USA and UK, concerns have been raised about whether personal identifiable information actually needs to be collected by authorities for the system to work.
One report suggests that as many as 70% of Americans will refuse to install a contact tracing app because of privacy concerns. The entire contact tracing process relies on large numbers of people using the app, otherwise it is impossible to properly map the personal interactions through which the virus spreads.
So it could be that many contact tracing projects underperform – unless governments start taking privacy concerns seriously. It may be that future app versions begin to introduce anonymity as requested.
For now, if you do download an app, always check it is the “official” version recommended by your government. Check your government’s website for details and follow the links published on official channels. In this way you can avoid downloading one of the fake apps that cyber criminals are using to try and defraud concerned citizens.
And don’t forget you can always protect yourself against any fraudulent apps with free Antivirus for Android – download it here.