Britain swore an oath of sovereignty against Apple and Google earlier this year, resolving to devise a workable contact-tracing app that didn’t have to cave to Apple and Google’s user privacy demands. After numerous warnings from experts that the app simply wouldn’t work, the rollout has been delayed from May to winter, and now Britain is joining countries like Germany and Italy, which reluctantly agreed to work with the tech companies in the early phase of development. Now, they both have contact-tracing apps.
In a statement on Thursday, the British Department of Health and Social Care announced that it was pivoting to the Google/Apple framework after identifying “challenges” during the app’s test run on the Isle of Wight. “At this stage an app based on the Google/Apple API appears most likely to address some of the specific limitations identified through our field testing,” it reads.
It’s a long-awaited admission that the app failed, as was clearly predicted by numerous experts. The NHSX, the technology arm of the government health department, had hedged its bets on a clumsy workaround to Google and Apple’s API, with the assumption that most people in the country would use Android phones. As privacy expert Michael Veale explained to the Guardian in May, the idea was that Android phones, which less frequently close unused apps to conserve battery use, would “nudge” nearby iPhones in order to keep them awake. Another tactic was having the app send the user a push notification telling them to reopen the app, which surely wouldn’t have annoyed anyone. The NHSX told the Guardian that the app would run, and keep working, in the background.
Back in May, users of an early rollout in the Isle of Wight quickly complained that this shit simply didn’t work: The app drained their batteries and busted Bluetooth connections on some Android phones, and iPhones weren’t picking up signals from those Androids.
The app also arguably violated the GDPR by potentially sharing identifying information with third parties without users’ consent, and there was no guarantee that the data would be responsibly disposed of. In May, as the pilot version was set to go live, NHSX CEO Matthew Gould backtracked on previous NHS assurances that data wouldn’t be shared outside the NHS, saying that after the pandemic, the data might also be made available to unnamed organizations for “research purposes.”
Although some European countries initially shared Britain’s resistance to Google and Apple’s API—which requires storing information about users’ contacts locally on those users’ phones in exchange for expanding Bluetooth capabilities—most have reversed course and embraced the tech companies’ help. After briefly attempting its own centralized app in April, Germany abandoned the plan, reasoning that it was better to ensure that the app runs smoothly on Apple and Google devices. Soon, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria followed. While that rightly caused a lot of worry about the power Apple and Google wield over governments, civil liberties groups like the ACLU gave Google and Apple a tentative hat-tip for their privacy-oriented approach. Still, abiding by the companies’ privacy rules means government services won’t be able to collect and store contact-tracing information in databases that would potentially allow them to track the spread of the virus.
Like Britain, France opted to go its own route, storing data in a centralized location. When a doctor diagnoses covid-19, they give the patient a QR code or a key they can elect to input. The server will then notify people who’ve been at substantial risk with a recommendation that they get tested. France rolled out its app on June 2, although many worry about privacy and interoperability between other countries’ apps with decentralized data storage.
Britain’s app debacle is widely described in the media and by British politicians as a national embarrassment. Jonathan Ashworth, shadow secretary of state for health and social care, told the Guardian, “This is unsurprising and yet another example of where the government’s response has been slow and badly managed. It’s meant precious time and money wasted.” According to the Johns Hopkins covid-19 map, the United Kingdom has the third-highest number of deaths due to covid-19, following the United States and Brazil, countries with several times its population.
There’s also a chance Britain is just throwing in the towel on contact-tracing tech. After announcing that the app wouldn’t be ready until the end of the year, British health official Lord Bethell said this week that it “isn’t the priority at the moment.”