The government has come under fire for fundamentally changing its contact tracing app mid-way through the initial trials – so what exactly went wrong?
Back on 12 April, the government announced it would create and develop a brand-new app to track the population and drive down coronavirus transmissions. It would work by creating huge datasets showing who had been in contact with whom over a set period. Once someone with the app develops Covid-19 symptoms, they log it on the system and a notification is immediately sent to anyone they’d been in contact with recently, telling them to self-isolate.
So far so good, but this entire operation was scrapped just six weeks after its original trial on the Isle of Wight, and before it even had a chance to go nationwide. In its place, the government said it would use a new model developed jointly by Apple and Google.
Why, then, did the government not use the combined might of two tech heavyweights in the first instance, and what were the problems with the app it had developed?
According to the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, there were two main factors that brought about its downfall.
First there was the issue of always needing Bluetooth switched on – which has long been known to shorten battery life.
Secondly, the government wanted to keep all the harvested data in a centralised location. Apple and Google, on the other hand, prefer decentralised models where contact happens immediately between the phones of two people with the app. Without a huge dataset in the middle, it’s more difficult for this information to be hacked or leaked.
Apple even went so far as to say it wouldn’t support such an app – meaning anyone with an iPhone couldn’t track and trace. This was no idle threat – with results from the Isle of Wight showing that the app failed to detect 96% of contacts with iPhone users.
Amid rising discontent from privacy campaigners, the government announced in mid-June (more than two months after originally announcing the app), that the UK would follow many EU countries by moving to Apple and Google’s solution.
Discontent remains, however, with health secretary Matt Hancock lambasting Apple for not being sufficiently cooperative.
Perhaps the biggest issue for the government was simply not listening to technology experts and campaigners at the very beginning – at least that’s the view of Cellan-Jones. “They warned months ago,” he notes, “how this story would end.”