The COVID-19 contact-tracing apps we were promised are finally here

The COVID-19 contact-tracing apps we were promised are finally here

Contact-tracing apps have consistently been hailed by governments as a key tool in fighting the spread of COVID-19, but we’ve yet to see many of them released to the public.

On Thursday morning I awoke to discover a COVID-19 contact-tracing app was finally available for me to download. Except the app I ended up downloading wasn’t the one I’d initially anticipated.


Back in March, as the world was waking up to the realities of the coronavirus and was starting to go into lockdown, the government in the UK, where I live, boasted that it had already started work on a contact-tracing app that would be ready by May. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. And it’s still not ready, and I’ve ended up using a different solution altogether.

Contact tracing is a long-established form of finding out who might’ve been exposed to a disease by asking someone with a diagnosis who else they’ve recently been in contact with. The digital version is effectively the same as the traditional approach, but instead of health professionals asking questions, your phone keeps an anonymized record of the people you’ve crossed paths with, using Bluetooth and a dedicated app, and it lets you know if you need to get a test.

From the start, the UK government put its app right at the center of its track and trace strategy. The app would be essential for tackling the spread of COVID-19 and reopening the economy when the time came, officials said.

Initially the UK went with a centralized model for its app, which meant that all data collected through the app would be uploaded to and processed by a central database. This would allow for the gathering of a certain amount of public health data, as opposed to a decentralized model, which involves data being stored on people’s personal devices and processed fully anonymously only when necessary.

Privacy experts warned the government, and other governments working on similar projects, that the centralized model was a data privacy nightmare and that people might not trust the app, resulting in them not downloading and using it. Meanwhile, technical experts pointed out an even bigger flaw in the centralized approach: Apple’s rules for apps meant that data collected in the background via Bluetooth (an essential part of how digital contact tracing works) couldn’t be uploaded to a centralized database.

Effectively, they were saying that the app the UK government was building wouldn’t work properly on iPhones.

But even when Apple and Google together released a protocol to help people build decentralized contact-tracing apps that would work properly on phones, the UK didn’t change its approach. It said Apple and Google would slow it down, and it pressed ahead with trials and with promising that its software would be available to members of the public within weeks…Read more>>