NHSX contact-tracing app reportedly failed cyber security tests

Report emerges as Apple and Google double-down on privacy with location tracking ban

The contact-tracing app developed by the NHSX has been described as “a bit wobbly” by senior NHS employees, who told the Health Service Journal (HSJ) that it has so far failed security tests. 

The anonymous sources revealed to the medical policy news service that the app had initially failed all of the tests required in order to be included in the NHS app library, including cyber security, performance and clinical safety.

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However, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) denied the claims. 

“The NHS COVID-19 app has not failed any clinical assessments and NHS Digital has been clear it will go through the normal assessment and approval process following the Isle of Wight roll-out,” they said.

The DHSC spokesperson also clarified that the app would monitor people’s locations, a possibility which was seen as a significant privacy violation.

“Privacy and security has been paramount throughout the app’s development, and we have worked in partnership with the National Cyber Security Centre throughout. The app uses low-energy Bluetooth, not GPS, and therefore it does not track people’s locations or record their locations.”

The news comes as Google and Apple announced that they would ban the use of location tracking in apps that use their contact-tracing API, which uses Bluetooth signals to detect encounters but does not use or store GPS location data.

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A number of European countries have leaned towards the decentralised Apple-Google API, while the UK snubbed the two tech giants last week and announced it would be developing its own centralised model.

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Senior NHS sources told HSJ that the UK government was “going about it in a kind of a hamfisted way. They haven’t got clear versions, so it’s been impossible to get a fixed code base from them for NHS Digital to test. They keep changing it all over the place”. 

In spite of all these issues, HSJ’s sources clarified that the app was not a “big disaster”. Starting today, the system is being trialled on the Isle of Wight and, if it passes tests, it is expected to become available to the public in mid-May, when lockdown restrictions are expected to be gradually lifted.

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