NHS ‘locked in standoff’ with Big Tech over coronavirus app

The government wants a centralised view of contacts but Apple and Google’s API favours a decentralised model

The fate of the UK government's coronavirus contact tracing app, set to be powered by Google and Apple technology, has been cast into doubt in light of a row over who can access the data.

The iOS and Android developers are working together to develop an API which healthcare organisations across the world are relying on to build their apps, including the NHS.

However, original plans set out by NHSX over such an application involved the creation of a centralised database of interactions so officials can harness a full view of the frequency of contacts, according to the Guardian.

However, it has emerged that this fundamentally differs from the nature of the API being developed by Google and Apple, which is designed to work in a decentralised manner.

Apps developed using this API will only notify individual users when they may have been in touch with a coronavirus sufferer, as opposed to feeding these data points into a centralised view.

Earlier this week it was reported the NHS was seeking to build its app using the API due to a host of features included that would be otherwise difficult to code from scratch in time for when lockdown measures are partially lifted.

The key mechanism involves using Bluetooth communications between users to determine when people interact. Amber notifications would be sent out to contacts of people who self-diagnose with coronavirus, and red alerts for positive tests.

One of the key features critical to the app's proper functionality was ensuring the app could be “always-on”, and broadcast Bluetooth signals even when a user’s device is asleep and the app is inactive.

The contrast between the UK government’s ambitions for a centralised database, and the decentralised nature of API being developed by Google and Apple, however, has created a standoff situation.

This may force NHSX to change its approach, or follow in the steps of Singapore and go it alone by building its contact tracing app before tech giants finish developing their blueprints, according to the newspaper.

Abandoning Google and Apple’s API, however, might mean compromising on functionality or UI design, which would render the app less desirable. Singapore, for example, has only registered 12% of its population to its tracing app.

This would be catastrophic for the prospects of using a contact tracing app to ease lockdown, with BBC News reporting the NHS is targeting 80% of current smartphone users in order for the app to be effective.

IT Pro approached NHSX for clarification on its plans and its position, although a spokesperson for the health service’s digital arm denied suggestions of a standoff to the Guardian.

“This suggestion is completely wrong,” they added. “Everyone is in agreement that user privacy is paramount, and while our app is not dependent on the changes they are making, we believe they will be helpful and complementary.”

Featured Resources

Choosing a collaboration platform

Eight questions every IT leader should ask

Download now

Performance benchmark: PostgreSQL/ MongoDB

Helping developers choose a database

Download now

Customer service vs. customer experience

Three-step guide to modern customer experience

Download now

Taking a proactive approach to cyber security

A complete guide to penetration testing

Download now

Recommended

Google Cloud unveils AI contact center focused on vaccine equity
artificial intelligence (AI)

Google Cloud unveils AI contact center focused on vaccine equity

16 Apr 2021
Assessing your cloud strategy after COVID
cloud computing

Assessing your cloud strategy after COVID

16 Apr 2021
Neo digital transformation
digital transformation

Neo digital transformation

9 Apr 2021
Onboarding during the pandemic and beyond
recruitment

Onboarding during the pandemic and beyond

25 Mar 2021

Most Popular

How to find RAM speed, size and type
Laptops

How to find RAM speed, size and type

8 Apr 2021
Microsoft is submerging servers in boiling liquid to prevent Teams outages
data centres

Microsoft is submerging servers in boiling liquid to prevent Teams outages

7 Apr 2021
REvil threatens to release Apple’s hardware schematics
ransomware

REvil threatens to release Apple’s hardware schematics

21 Apr 2021