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Update on the Isle of Wight coronavirus app trial - will it work?

07 May, 2020 — Daniel James

Video at: https://youtu.be/9dxnUBfXsIs

So, here's an update from the coronavirus app trial taking place on the Isle of Wight. Today I've received a letter advising me to download and install the contact tracing app developed by NHSX, so I've done that. I've also set up a Bluetooth scanner on my wife's phone, to figure out what data the NHSX app is actually sending over Bluetooth, and as advertised, it sends a number of pings to other devices which are somewhat anonymous, in that the data is recorded of the ping but you don't see a name come up or anything like that on the other phone.

So what I've noticed is that this app, apart from the fact that it depends on everybody having a smartphone with Bluetooth enabled, which they switched on, they're walking around with all the time, that it isn't in any real sense anonymous. This is given away in the government letter because it says when someone you've been in contact with you know clicks the button to say that "yes, I have these coronavirus symptoms" that they will then inform all of the people that they've been with in Bluetooth range of. So if the app is anonymous, how do they know who to inform?

Well, clearly it's not anonymous, it's only anonymous to the the end user, in that we don't record the names of the people that we've been in contact with. So that's one aspect, it's certainly not anonymous, but my concerns with the app are not really about privacy.

My main concern about the app is the idea of risk compensation. Now, you may recall that on the Isle of Wight the reason why our community was put forward for this trial in the first place is that our local government and our MP want to restart the economy on the Island.

They've got behind this idea of a campaign they called "Save our Summer" which was about restarting tourism in time for the summer. Well, we're already in May, summer is underway, and although they've backtracked slightly from that, and they're now saying "Well, we didn't really mean to relax lockdown" that is the inevitable association that people will make in their minds between this app, and the campaign that these individuals were running on behalf of our local government just a week or two ago.

So, the theory of risk compensation says that when people feel safer they behave more dangerously. In the case of something like car seat belts, the argument was made that people will drive more dangerously once they are required by law to have a seatbelt, even though the seatbelt is already fitted and is available for them to use optionally.

Now, whether you believe that theory or not, the key difference between something like car seat belts and this app trial is that in the case of the car seat belt, the seat belt provides a demonstrable health benefit. You are going to be better off in a car crash if you have seat belt than if you don't.

Unfortunately with this app trial, it's not the case. We have an app which can do a certain amount of contact tracing for people who happen to have Bluetooth, and happen to have been in your vicinity, and happen to have already downloaded and installed the app, and happened to have the phone switched on and so on, but the app itself doesn't actually provide any health benefit, it only traces contacts after they've already been infected.

So while it's perhaps useful for data gathering, it doesn't actually provide any benefit to the end-user as in protecting them from the virus. If you have the risk compensation effect in which people are behaving in a more relaxed way, perhaps because they've been led to believe that the app is going to somehow limit the spread of the virus, as it says in the letter from the government that I received today, then I think people are going to behave in a more relaxed way about things like lockdown, about social distancing and things that are known to work in reducing the spread of a transmissible virus.

Now if that extra risk that's created by relaxing lockdown was balanced against a health benefit from the app, than we could argue that there was a case to be made that the app was somehow going to bring us out in front, providing a health benefit and a health risk, and the benefit outweighed the risk, but in this case we can see that's clearly not going to happen.

The app itself provides no health benefits, so we can have the risk compensation effect increasing risk but no balancing of the app itself providing a health benefit to that individual. It may provide a health benefit in the long term if this unproven methodology actually works to bring down transmission, but in the short term the app is probably, I believe, on balance going to actually increase health risk.

So my advice to you from someone who lives on the Isle of Wight, who's got the app and is taking part in the trial, is: Please do download and install the app if you want, check it out for yourself, use a Bluetooth scanner to figure out what it's doing, that's all fine. But please don't treat it like a magical talisman that's going to protect you through the power of technology, because it really won't.

Tags: coronavirus, privacy, apps

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