An update to the NHS Covid-19 app has been blocked by Apple and Google – leaving iPhone and Android users without access to the planned features as lockdown restrictions begin to lift across England and Wales. The team behind the NHS contact-tracing app had planned for the latest update to coincide with the new rules coming into force, which allows hair-dressers, gyms, and non-essential retail to re-open.
The NHS Covid-19 app, available free to download on iPhone here and Android here, is designed to stop the spread by tracking when you’ve been in close contact with someone who has the virus. It uses Bluetooth to keep tabs on people in your proximity.
With the latest update, the Department of Health had coded the NHS Covid-19 app to upload a backlog of their venue check-ins, which are handled with the large QR codes outside shops, pubs, and restaurants, if they tested positive. This information, which would track which venues they had visited while potentially being contagious with the virus, would be used to warn others.
However, Apple and Google have explicitly banned this functionality. This limitation has been in place from the start.
Apple is the creator of iOS, the mobile operating system that powers every iPhone model worldwide, while Google develops Android, which is used and customised by dozens of different manufacturers, including Samsung, Sony, LG, OnePlus, Nokia, Oppo, as well as Google’s own Pixel line of smartphones. iOS and Android are the most popular smartphone operating systems on the planet – and the partnership between Apple and Google is designed to enable contract-tracing between as many people as possible. The system developed by the two Californian rivals is designed to anonymise and protect smartphone owners’ privacy.
If your smartphone has been in close proximity to an iPhone or Android owner who later tests positive for coronavirus, Apple and Google’s system will warn you. The NHS app, which is built on this system, employs a “risk-assessment” algorithm to determine the likelihood that you might’ve contracted the coronavirus.
If the system believes it’s unlikely – maybe they were stood on a station platform while you were inside the carriage of a train that pulled up beside them – you won’t receive any further notifications from the app. If there’s good reason to believe you might have Covid-19 –if you were both inside and in close proximity for a prolonged period, for example – the app will tell you to self-isolate.
Why was the NHS Covid-19 app update blocked?
The problem with the latest update from the Department of Health was that it allowed the Government to receive a history of your movements. By sharing the venue check-in information after a positive test, the Government would be able to see your recent movements in explicit detail, from the shops you visited that morning to the restaurants and pubs. This is something that Apple and Google do not want their technology used for.
While the system is able to alert users who have been in close proximity with someone who later tests positive – that information is not shared with any other organisations or governments.
In order to use the system developed by Apple and Google – which is made available for free, health authorities have to agree not to collect any location data using the contact-tracking software. After all, it’s easy to see how this data could be used maliciously by governments and law enforcement across the globe.
Since the latest update submitted to Apple and Google for the NHS Covid-19 app broke these rules, iPhone and Android users did not receive the update as planned today. Instead, Apple and Google continue to make the previous version available in the App Store and Google Play Store, respectively.
When questioned why the terms and conditions of the technology were swerved, the Department of Health declined to discuss how the misstep occurred. Instead, a spokesperson told the BBC: “The deployment of the functionality of the NHS Covid-19 app to enable users to upload their venue history has been delayed. This does not impact the functionality of the app and we remain in discussions with our partners to provide beneficial updates to the app which protect the public.”
Scotland has avoided the block because it offers two apps for the public. While Protect Scotland uses the privacy-focused system from Apple and Google, it also offers Check In Scotland, which is built on its own system that shares venue histories with the authorities.
The UK Government initially avoided Apple and Google’s free-to-use contact-tracing system because of its focus on privacy. By developing its own rival system, the UK Government wanted to keep the location data from smartphone owners.
The planned app, which cost £12 million and took three months to develop, could not accurately detect contact between iPhone and Android, due to the limitations around Bluetooth imposed on the operating system by Google and Apple. This restriction is designed to stop applications in the background (i.e. not displayed on the screen at all times) from constantly checking Bluetooth connections to keep tabs on nearby users. This is a privacy concern – do you really want Facebook to keep track of all the people you’ve passed in the street today, for example? However, the restriction is also designed to stop serious battery life drain. Unfortunately, the feature prevented the NHS app from finding 25 per cent of Android phones and 96 percent of iPhone owners.
As such, it was scrapped and the UK Government used the freely available – albeit, more limited due to the restrictions on location data – option from Apple and Google.
The UK wasn’t the only country to reject the privacy-focused approach developed by Apple and Google, Germany, Italy and Denmark also attempted to create their own system that would work as effectively as the one created by the Silicon Valley companies behind the operating system.