'Privacy is at the heart' of the coronavirus contact-tracing app, claim creators

The free app, which will be trialled on the Isle of Wight this week, uses Bluetooth to track when users come into contact with each other. If one develops the tell-tale fever or cough, the app could trigger an anonymous alert to others who have been close to the “patient”, enabling them to self-isolate or seek testing. The app aims to limit the risk of a second peak in coronavirus infections and could even help ease the UK out of lockdown. Critics have raised concerns, however, about the government and third parties potentially having access to users’ personal data. “We will open the code of the app, we will publish a privacy notice and security model,” said Gould. Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery – chair of the ethics advisory board for the app – agreed, adding: “The app’s code and underlying algorithms will be made public.” Epidemiologists advising the NHS claimed around 56% of the UK population - or 80% of smartphone owners - must use the technology to suppress the coronavirus. During a Science Media Centre briefing, experts were reluctant to put a figure on the downloads required. “We need a significant proportion of the population [to download the app] to give us an additional oomph in the contact-tracing space”, said Professor Van-Tam. “If people want to carry on saving lives, protecting the NHS and get the country back on its feet, downloading the app is one way they can do that,” said Gould. Professor Van-Tam added: “The market research we’ve done suggests people will engage with something that protects the NHS.” Gould stressed, however, even if downloads are not “very high”, the app could still be “fantastically valuable”. “We can say to the public, ‘You can really help by downloading the app and you’re not compromising your privacy by doing it’.” When asked about the risk of hacking, Professor Montgomery said: “If you get into the database, you will not find any identifiable information about the users.” Speaking at the briefing, the scientists also stressed the app is subject to change. This is compared to a decentralised approach where data is stored on a shared database in many locations controlled by no single entity. Others cause everything from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 774 people during its 2002/3 outbreak.