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UNITED KINGDOM, May 4, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has just begun testing a smartphone app aimed at limiting the spread of the Wuhan virus, igniting a host of privacy concerns and warnings about mission creep.
Government health experts in the U.K. rejected an app developed by Google and Apple that stores pertinent information on each user’s phone in favor of developing their own, which stores information about individuals on a central government server.
The NHS’s newly created NHSX — which is charged with setting national policy and practices where technology and digital data intersect with health care — just launched a limited test run in the Isle of Wight.
At the moment, France and the United Kingdom are poised to deploy centralized government apps as the U.K. is doing, while other European nations, including Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, appear ready to use decentralized designs.
How tracking apps work
All tracking apps currently in development to combat the pandemic utilize Bluetooth measuring functions in order to alert smartphone users who have been in close contact with someone who has become infected with the Wuhan virus. For most countries, the proximity standard is within two meters and for at least ten minutes.
As soon as an app user is reported to have the virus, everyone who has fallen within those close contact standards receives an alert advising him to get tested or to go into quarantine.
False positives and interference
“If I am in the wide open, my Bluetooth and your Bluetooth might ping each other even if you’re much more than six feet away,” Dr. Farzad Mostashari, former national coordinator for health information technology at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, told The Verge. “You could be through the wall from me in an apartment, and it could ping that we’re having a proximity event. You could be on a different floor of the building and it could ping. You could be biking by me in the open air and it could ping.”
Australia has found that other phone apps that utilize Bluetooth technology can interfere with the ability of its COVIDSafe app to reliably record all close encounters with individuals infected with the virus.
Likewise, operating a phone in “low power mode” may also negatively impact the utility of the app, reducing its ability to track contacts, according to a spokesperson for Australia’s government services minister, Stuart Robert.
Danger of human rights infringement, mission creep
During a remote Zoom hearing conducted today, experts from the London School of Economics (LSE) and University College London (UCL) urged legislative oversight for the new tracking technologies now being deployed to combat the Wuhan virus pandemic.
“The introduction of the app raises issues beyond data protection and privacy, such as whether or not individuals may find themselves compelled to produce the app, or to download it,” said LSE’s Orla Lynskey, according to a report by ComputerWeekly.com. “That is beyond the role of the Information Commissioner, and goes into areas of human rights and discrimination.”
“We need a roadmap of where this is going, who might have access, and without that roadmap and accountability around it, it is very hard to say the system is secure against mission creep,” noted UCL’s Michael Veale.
Veale also expressed concern from a human rights and privacy perspective due to the NHSX’s centralized system for obtaining and storing personal data.
“The tech giants believe their effort provides more privacy, as it limits the ability of either the authorities or a hacker to use the computer server logs to track specific individuals and identify their social interactions,” reported the BBC.
A pan-European group of experts known as DP3T is pushing for decentralized designs such as Britain’s while calling attention to the vulnerabilities of all tracking apps.
Although all apps currently in the works or already deployed purport to anonymize all information, DP3T warns that with centralized government proximity tracing systems, it wouldn’t be hard for either hackers — or law enforcement agencies armed with subpoenas — to track and target app users and those they associate with.
This would open the door to future “long-term persistent surveillance of individuals by third parties,” whether adversarial hackers or law enforcement.
As currently envisioned, downloading tracking apps to personal devices is purely voluntary.
While that’s good news for those concerned about protecting their privacy, it is also a potential Achilles heel for tracking apps: epidemiologists have said a critical mass — meaning at least 60% of any given population — would need to use the app in order for it to be successful.
Australia launched its own app last week, but only 2 million people have downloaded the app so far, meaning less than 10% of the nation’s population.