The Guardian: ‘NHS in Standoff With Apple and Google Over Coronavirus Tracing’

Alex Hern, writing for The Guardian:

Apple and Google are encouraging health services worldwide to build contact-tracing apps that operate in a decentralised way, allowing individuals to know when they’ve been in contact with an infected person but preventing governments from using that data to build a picture of population movements in aggregate. But the policies, unveiled last week, apply only to apps that don’t result in the creation of a centralised database of contacts. That means that if the NHS goes ahead with its original plans, its app would face severe limitations on its operation.

The app would not work if the phone’s screen was turned off or if an app other than the contact tracer was being used at the same time. It would require the screen to be active all the time, rapidly running down battery life, and would leave users’ personal data at risk if their phone was lost or stolen while the app was in use.

It’s early days on this — Apple and Google only announced their joint project a week ago. But what Hern describes above is unfeasible. Any idea that requires an app to be frontmost, with the screen on, is completely and utterly preposterous. That’s so obvious that I don’t even understand how this got printed. Anything that might actually prove effective for using phones for contact tracing must run in the background as an operating system service, and that means Apple and Google are in charge.

Whether that’s the way it should be — ethically, democratically, scientifically — is up for debate. But that’s the way it is, so it’s pointless to act otherwise.

Friday, 17 April 2020