Think the ‘track and trace’ app will save us? Think again

NHSX, the technology and data unit of the national health service, is testing a ‘track and trace’ app on the Isle of Wight this month in the hope that it could slow the spread of Covid-19 and ease lockdown measures. This centralised approach is the result of interesting speculation about balancing the app’s efficiency with privacy. The Financial Times stated, “Arguably, the most effective contact-tracing tools would ignore privacy concerns altogether”. I’m not suggesting we arm ourselves with copies of 1984 and cry dystopia, but whilst we should support the government’s intention to save lives, we also have a right to question the social and scientific implications of the technology that will be central to post-lockdown life. It’s ominous enough that the shiny tools of social connection are becoming the overseers of isolation and hyper-vigilance. 

The centralised system works whereby if we come into contact with an anonymised phone user who has logged in as an infected carrier, we will be notified by a central database. NHSX can analyse this central database anonymously and contain it. Apple and Google have expressed caution about hackers, function creep and state surveillance. They proposed a decentralised network involving a relay server in our device that computes exposure to a carrier, separately from government. Apple brands itself on the principle “privacy is a fundamental human right”, standing out from other tech giants such as Facebook who maintain looser privacy regulations. Whether their resistance to centralised data is an insightful warning from a technological superpower – or simply part of their marketing strategy – is debatable.

However, it is valid to feel cautious about the consequences of such an imminent technological advance and a world governed by technology. History tells us how a sense of emergency spurs us into actions we later regret. On the issue, David Davis MP stated that “We need an absolute, brick-wall stop on this legislation at 12 months”. But this could get brushed under the carpet when the government faces more pressing economic and political problems as the year goes on. As Aldous Huxley said, “The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced”. So, whilst the end is to save human lives, the means of momentous technological development is the by-product. Hopefully this is for the better and not for worse. 

Experts and ministers have also been warning the government of the detrimental long-term impacts of the app. An open letter from Britain’s leading scientists stated, “These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies”. Indeed, governments should be prioritising public trust at a time of uncertainty. 

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The introduction of a complex app that most people will struggle to understand could also exacerbate public dissonance. According to a study carried out at the University of Oxford, at least 60% of the population would have to use the app for it to be effective. But will technophobia and conspiracy theories preclude the app’s success? Given that almost half of the British population believed Covid-19 is ‘man made’ and 8% believed it stems from 5G as late as April, we have little hope in believing such a large percentage of Britons will be trusting this app any time soon. 

Eventually, though, people will choose saving lives over civil liberties, based on the logic that we are, after all, psychologically wired to survive above all else. As we face economic depression and a further loss of lives that this entails, we need to trust the government more than ever before.

Britain is learning from the example of countries such as Australia whose app was based on Chinese mobile tracking measures, as well as South Korea who deployed CCTV, swiftly pushing down cases to 10,000. These regulations are dubious to British ideals of liberty but are nonetheless effective in ending lockdown: the trade-off between health and privacy seems like a no-brainer. But speaking of general brainlessness, how about America’s band of anti-lockdown protesters? Would they welcome such an app? On present form, it doesn’t seem likely.

Chris Yiu of the Tony Blair Institute has stated that “Covid-19 is not an ideology and rebalancing the contract between citizens and the state to take advantage of new technologies is not capitulation.”. But uncertainty from experts about the app’s efficiency is disheartening. Vaccinations are our best bet, so until we have those, it’s up for debate whether the track and trace app will help us, threaten us, or flop altogether. 

Image: pestoverde via Wikimedia Commons