UK to test COVID-19 tracing app on the Isle of Wight this week

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will begin testing its own COVID-19 tracking application on the Isle of Wight from Tuesday, hoping the technology combined with further testing and tracking will help limit the transmission of the coronavirus.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Britain's Secretary of Health, Matt Hancock, chairs the Daily News Digital COVID-19 with Deputy Medical Director, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam and Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology, coordinator of the national testing effort , Professor John Newton to update the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at 10 Downing Street in London, England, May 4, 2020. Andrew Parsons / 10 Downing Street / Disclosure via REUTERS / File Photo

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He took a different approach from other European countries when processing data centrally, and not just on the devices themselves, where a higher level of privacy can be guaranteed.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday, however, that privacy and data security are paramount in developing the app.

Everyone on the island on the south coast of England, with a population of around 140,000, will be able to download the app starting on Thursday, while health services and council staff will have access from Tuesday.

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Anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or a positive test will enter the details into the app to start the tracking process.

"By downloading the app, you are protecting your own health, the health of your loved ones and the health of your community," said Hancock at a news conference on Monday.

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"The pilot is important so that we can help ensure that the application works in the best possible way, together with the contact tracking system."

Countries are rushing to develop applications that, together with a broader testing and tracking program, are seen as essential to facilitate the rules of social distance that have practically closed global economies.

Britain has opted for a centralized model, in which a list of contacts made via bluetooth signals is stored on the user's device as anonymous tokens.

If the user says that he has symptoms or that he was positive, the contact list can be sent to the application, which analyzes the data and notifies the devices that correspond to the tokens that he considers at risk, for example, due to the time when the devices were Upcoming.

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Matthew Gould, CEO of the NHSX technology group at the National Health Service, which developed the app, said he "put privacy at the center of it".

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"You don't know who you are. You don't know who you were close to. You don't know where you are," he said.

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The rival systems, including one proposed by Apple and Google, correspond to the token lists on the devices themselves, eliminating the risk of sending data to a centralized server, even if they are anonymized.

British information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said on Monday that if she starts with a blank slate for an application, it will be decentralized.

But she told a committee of lawmakers that it did not mean that a centralized system could not have the same kind of privacy and security protection.

Gould said the centralized technology would be able to provide more information about the virus.

"If privacy was the only thing we optimized for here, it may be that a decentralized approach is the default option," he said.

But privacy had to be balanced with public health, and a centralized approach gave the potential to "collect some very important data that provides serious information about the virus that will help us".

This included data on which symptoms evolved for COVID-19, which contacts were more risky and the difference, for example, between a contact three days ago and one yesterday.

He added that Britain was talking to international partners and also working "phenomenally" with Apple and Google.

Ideally, more than half of the population would download the app, he said, but even a level above 20% would provide some important information about how the virus was spreading.

Additional reporting by Kate Kelland and William James; edition by Stephen Addison

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