Royal Air Force tests virus-tracing app

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Military vehicles cross Westminster Bridge after members of the 101 Logistic Brigade delivered a consignment of medical masks to St Thomas’ hospital on March 24, 2020 in London, England.

Leon Neal | Getty Images

A Royal Air Force base in North Yorkshire, England, is testing a new contact-tracing app that has been developed by the country’s National Health Service (NHS). 

The news was first reported by the BBC and confirmed to CNBC by a spokesperson for NHSX, which is responsible for the digital transformation of health and social care in Britain. It’s unclear how many RAF personnel are using the app and how long for. 

The app, which relies on Bluetooth technology, is designed to alert smartphone owners if they have come into close contact with anyone that shows symptoms of the coronavirus. 

When users open the app, they’re either told “You’re OK right now” or “You need to isolate yourself and stay at home.” 

British Health Minister Matt Hancock said Wednesday that the lockdown won’t be lifted until the government has the infrastructure to carry out mass contact-tracing of those who have been infected with the coronavirus. 

That infrastructure doesn’t just involve an app. 

Britain is planning to hire 18,000 people to carry out manual contact-tracing alongside the app. Of those, 3,000 will be clinical personnel, while the others will need to be trained up.

“The more people who sign up for this new app when it goes live, the better informed our response will be and the better we can therefore protect the NHS,” Hancock said. 

But other countries have had mixed success with contact-tracing.

Accuracy is a big issue as GPS and Bluetooth having limitations in terms of precision. 

Privacy and mass surveillance is another major issue, as contact-tracing can potentially enable governments and companies to observe everyone’s movements far more than they already do, while also giving them access to sensitive personal medical data. 

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and EU privacy law permit tracking for public health reasons, but privacy groups have their reservations. 

Lessons to be learned? 

Despite the concerns, there are countless contact-tracing solutions in the pipeline worldwide and several have already been rolled out.   

On March 20, Singapore became one of the first countries in the world to deploy a contact-tracing app. However, TraceTogether, as the app is known, is voluntary, and only 12% of the population downloaded it, making it relatively ineffective.

Oxford researchers found that contact-tracing apps will only work as they’re intended to if around half the total population use the app.

With coronavirus cases more than doubling in Singapore last week, the prime minister issued a fresh plea to the nation on Wednesday to embrace the technology. 

“We will need to make full use of information technology, IT, so that when we discover Covid-19 cases, we can trace more efficiently where they have been, and whom they have been in contact with,” said Lee Hsien Loong, adding that Singapore is building other apps. “For these apps to work, we will need everyone’s cooperation to install and use these apps, like what the South Koreans have done.”

South Korea’s version — known as Covid-19 Smart Management System (SMS) — doesn’t require members of the public to download an app. Instead, it alerts citizens via a text message. 

The country lowered the number of new daily infections from 851 on March 3 to 22 infections as of April 17. 

While the system appears to have been relatively successful, privacy advocates don’t like the fact that it used a combination of GPS phone tracking, surveillance camera records, and credit card transactions to work out where infected people had been in the lead up to their positive status being confirmed. 

In Israel, the security service Shin Bet is also using what’s been described as a “Big Brother” surveillance system to inform those who may have come into contact with someone that has the coronavirus. 

Elsewhere, Israeli police tried using mobile phone location data to enforce quarantine. However, an oversight committee in Israel’s parliament ruled against extending the emergency measures this week. 

Big tech companies are getting involved to support contact-tracing efforts. 

In a rare joint collaboration, earlier this month Apple and Google announced they are jointly creating contact-tracing software designed to run in the background on iPhones and Android devices. 

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders,” both companies said earlier this month.

An empty Westminster Bridge is pictured in front of Britain’s Houses of Parliament in central London on April 13, 2020, as life in Britain continues over the Easter weekend, during the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. –

GLYN KIRK

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