Government Set to Launch App That Tells the Mob When Someone With COVID-19 Is Nearby

By Shabana Arif on at

An app that sounds like a recipe for disaster is in the works, that essentially hands out "patient-identifiable" data to strangers.

The contact tracking app has been brewing for some time, and is being worked on by NHSX - a branch of the NHS that works on innovating through "digital transformation." So far, development of the app has been done without the oversight of an ethics board, although arguably, I don't think the presence of one is going to fill anyone with much confidence. NHSX just brought US tech giant Palantir on board another of its projects despite the shady reputation the company has garnered for itself with defence contracts and its work with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), so we know which side its bread is buttered.

Utilising a mixture of Bluetooth, GPS, and QR codes, the app will store the details of the people whose paths you've crossed. Should you test positive for the virus (with tests being able to be requested through the app so that all of that juicy data is in one place) the people you've been in proximity with will be alerted via the app. They would be advised to self-isolate but wouldn't be told who it was that has forced them to do so. Additionally, the individual's workplace would be alerted, as well as any relevant transport providers so that they can carry out the necessary decontamination protocols.

China has a similar app, which should start the alarm bells ringing; it's 'voluntary' but citizens have been denied access to public transport and public spaces if they don't have it installed. The UK's version will also be opt-in, but Prof Michael Parker, an ethics specialist involved in the project, said that this might not be the case if not enough people get on board. So we're getting a sneak peek at what an ethics team overseeing the project might look like, and its shockingly shitty attitude. Parker said:

"The key question is - does it require everyone to do it for it to be effective? It's not essential that everyone does... but perhaps a high proportion of the population needs to.

"This is a really unusual situation where lives are at risk, so there is a case to be made to make at least some actions compulsory - but there would need to be a really clear case for that and careful oversight."

No, no there isn't. That implies penalties for not installing the app, and no one should be forced into some Orwellian nightmare because the government didn't manage the crisis effectively from the outset. Insiders who witnessed the development of the app called it a "hot mess" run by "a hodge-podge of suppliers and contractors" with "no clear voices in the room speaking to the privacy implications of the technology they were using." Very reassuring. I'm sure we'll all be clamouring to get involved.

There's also a basic failing to realise that one of the most at-risk group - over 55s - may not own smartphones or be proficient enough to be downloading apps in the first place. The reason we're all on lockdown is to protect the most vulnerable people in society and if the app isn't being used by them, it's arguably lost one of the legs it was standing on - and it was already in a precarious position to start off with. The chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, also weighed in on the project, and as a doctor he (unsurprisingly) thinks this is a bloody stupid idea:

"As a doctor, I am very against giving any patient-identifiable information, and for that reason we should also be careful, so I am not in favour of going down to street level or, 'You are within 100 metres of coronavirus'.

"That is the wrong approach for this country."

The government has already been given the okay to use mobile networks to track people in an effort to 'stop the spread of coronavirus' although given that we're in lockdown, the anonymised data is going to be of little help now unless it's being used to keep tabs on if/ where people are congregating so that the police can come and crack a few heads.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has already admitted that the police have gone too far in enforcing the lockdown in some cases, so it seems fairly obvious that all of this is absolutely bonkers and more people should be speaking out against these measures. There's saving lives, and then there's using fears over health and safety to frighten a populace into accepting invasive measures that simply aren't necessary. [Sky News, BBC News]

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