Civil servants raise concerns over COVID app takeup rates

By on 21/05/2020
(Photo by Zydeaosika via Pexels).

Officials in India and Singapore have warned that low take-up rates are hampering the effectiveness of contact-tracing apps in tackling COVID-19, while UK surveys have highlighted fears over data privacy and public confidence in the country’s own emerging app programme. 

Several countries, including Singapore, India, Germany, Norway, Iceland and Australia have launched contact-tracing apps, which use technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Bluetooth and GPS to assess whether a user has been within a certain distance of an infected person for a period of time.

Oxford University researchers believe that contact-tracing apps must be used by at least 60% of a country’s population in order to be effective. However, in most countries that have launched apps, the percentage is much lower. India’s Aarogya Setu app – which is now mandatory for office workers and those travelling on trains – has been downloaded by 100 million of the country’s 1.3bn population. “These apps have a role to play, but [whether] they are useful depends on the technology, how many people use it, and how that data is leveraged,” Anant Bhan, a health researcher at Yenepoya University in Mangalore, India, told the Financial Times. “It’s not foolproof, and it needs to be accompanied by contact tracing on the ground.”

Singapore’s app development team, which is part of the city-state’s technology agency GovTech, admitted in an online post that “adoption has always been one of TraceTogether’s weaknesses”. Lawrence Wong, national development minister and co-chair of Singapore’s coronavirus task force recently suggested that the government may decide to make the app mandatory in order to lift takeup rates above the current 25%. “When we are ready with a [tech] solution… we will want everyone to take it up,” he said, adding that those without smartphones may be asked to carry a wearable device when they leave home.

Norway’s app is being used by just 20% of the population – though Gun Peggy Knudsen, the acting deputy director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, pointed out that the country’s Smittestopp app has benefits beyond the need to identify potentially infected individuals. It can, she said, help officials to understand how well the population is following social distancing rules and how the virus is spreading.

Concerns raised over UK’s app

These developments come as doubts are being cast over the UK government’s contact-tracing app.

The app asks users who think they might have the virus to log their symptoms, which are assessed by an AI-based system. If their symptoms meet the threshold for COVID-19, users are directed to a testing centre and asked to self-isolated for 14 days. Meanwhile, the app uses its records of close contacts over the previous days – constantly tracked via Bluetooth and held securely – to identify anyone who may be at risk and alert them.

The government hopes the app – which was supposed to be deployed in mid-May but now won’t be rolled out until June – will complement an 18,000-strong contact tracing team. However, tech experts have their doubts over the app’s effectiveness. According to a survey by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, less than a quarter of IT professionals think the planned contact-tracing app will be effective in containing COVID-19.

Of the respondents, 24% believe the app will contribute to curbing the virus, 32% feel it will make no contribution and 45% are undecided. Data security and privacy was found to be their top concern. Privacy experts have raised concern over the app collecting sensitive information such as location data, which they believe could be compromised.

Just over half (51%) of the professionals surveyed by the BCS said the government should switch from the current centralised model to the decentralised Google-Apple API model of storing records, which has been adopted by Germany for its app. Just under a quarter (23%) favoured the UK’s planned centralised model.

A study on behalf of cyber security solutions provider Anomali, meanwhile, revealed that 29% of respondents said they would not download the app and a further 27% are undecided.

However, more than half (51%) believe that the app will be either somewhat or very effective in controlling COVID-19. And over a third (39%) say that downloading the contact-tracing app should be made obligatory.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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