UK U-Turns on Contact Tracing App Privacy

The UK government has abandoned its centralized coronavirus contact-tracing app in favor of a decentralized model, according to the BBC's chief tech correspondent. 

Rory Cellan-Jones shared news of the UK's U-turn on Twitter earlier today. Posting as @ruskin147, Cellan-Jones wrote: "BBC scoop - NHS abandons centralized contact tracing app, moves to Apple/Google decentralized model."

petition by ProPrivacy asking the UK government to change their contact-tracing app’s data collection model from centralized to decentralized to protect user privacy attracted over 1,000 signatures.

Digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, Ray Walsh, called the government's decision "a huge win for privacy."

"A decentralized app will allow consumers across the UK to download the app without fears that their data could be exploited for secondary purposes," said Walsh.

The National Health Service COVID-19 contact-tracing app was created to tell people when they may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus. A pilot scheme is currently under way in the Isle of Wight to test the app's efficacy.

Lord Bethell, the minister for innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care, said participants of the pilot scheme had indicated that they would rather hear bad news from a person than via an automated text or email. 

Health secretary Matt Hancock said at the start of May that the NHS COVID-19 contact-tracing app would be rolled out mid-May. However, Lord Bethell, speaking to the MPs on the Commons science and technology committee, said recently that the app will not be ready before the winter. 

“We’re seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us,” Bethell stated.

The snail-like pace of the government's contact-tracing app implementation was bemoaned by Ray Walsh.

"It is a shame that it took so long for the NHS and the government to come to the same realization privacy experts had months ago—that in order for an app to be effective it is going to need to be accepted by the general public," said Walsh.

"While this is good news, the reality is that we could have had this app up and running weeks if not months ago, which could have greatly reduced the rate of infection and potentially saved lives."

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