NHS says its contact tracing app will be transparent

Someone holding an iPhone.

In a post on its NHSX blog, the National Health Service (NHS) said that its contact tracing app, for use in the UK, will uphold its commitments to transparency, ethics, and the law. It has consulted with experts and the general public and created an ethics advisory board to ensure the app doesn’t cross boundaries that it’s not supposed to.

As part of the UK’s lockdown exit strategy, the government will be pushing users to download the NHS’ contact tracing app in order for it to be effective. According to the NHS, the app will only be effective if a large proportion of the population installs it. In order to get people to download it in large numbers, it will have to gain people’s trust which it expects to do by being transparent and ethical while ensuring the experience is stable, resilient, secure, performant, highly usable, and effective against the disease.

In order to make sure it’s secure, performant, and the rest, an assurance board has been assembled which includes experts in mobile apps, data governance, and clinical safety. The board is presumably feeding back its opinions on the app as it is being developed and will give feedback while it’s in use by the public. The NHS said that it has prioritised security and privacy in all stages of the development of the app too.

The Open Rights Group (ORG), and other organisations concerned with civil liberties, have been doing their best to try to hold the NHS to account over its app to ensure that the proper protections are in place. It said that it’s advocating the draft Coronavirus Safeguards Bill which will help bring protections into law.

Interestingly, ORG points out that as the NHS app is using a centralised method of contact matching and this could mean it's impossible for it to use Google’s and Apple’s APIs. Without the API, iOS users could be forced to keep their screen unlocked so that Bluetooth keeps working. Earlier this week, the NHS said it found a way to work around this issue, but it’s not clear if this is a legitimate workaround or whether Apple will update its operating system to “fix” the issue.

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