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Coronavirus crisis: Why this method of tracking virus may not be as safe as you think

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On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a major shift in the way the UK’s Covid-19 tracing app will work by changing to a model based on designs by the two tech giants. This week also saw Norway’s health authority delete all of the data they gathered on a Covid-19 contact-tracing app after the Norwegian Data Protection Authority said the app was an intrusion on user’s privacy.

Norway was one of the first places to introduce a coronavirus contract-tracing app back in mid-April and their recent privacy issues raise uncertainties about users’ data protection.

Speaking to Express.co.uk, Brett Callow, threat analyst at Emsisoft, explained the dangers of contact tracing apps.

Mr Callow said: “Contact tracing apps can be problematic in multiple ways – from bogus apps that are released for the sole purpose of collecting data to government-backed apps that may either fail to provide proper security due to being rushed out or which represent a disproportionate intrusion into users’ privacy.”

Contact-tracing apps are being designed to help prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Google app

A Covid-19 contract-tracing app in the UK will be launched based on technology from Apple and Google (Image: getty)

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock announced a major shift in the way the UK’s Covid-19 tracing app will work (Image: getty)

The technology works by informing people if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

Easing out of lockdown could be safer and quicker if the Government can pinpoint who exactly needs to be in quarantine and where the infection is spreading the most.

While the app is yet to be launched in the UK, trained teams have been calling people who have Covid-19 symptoms or have tested positive to track the spread of the coronavirus and ask them to self-isolate.

At the Downing Street press briefing, Mr Hancock claimed that the Government’s original app plan might have been successful if Apple’s Bluetooth restrictions were not in place.

READ MORE: Contact tracing DISASTER: Matt Hancock hits out at Apple systems

Matt Hancock

Mr Hancock claimed that the Government’s original app plan might have been successful (Image: getty)

The Health Secretary said: “Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact tracing unless you’re using Apple’s own technology.

“Our app won’t work because Apple won’t change that system […] and their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.

“What matters is what works. Because what works will save lives.”

Mr Callow explained that Bluetooth-based apps provide users with more privacy, however, they may be less effective and problematic in other ways.

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Contact Tracing

Contact tracing works by informing people if they have been if they need to isolate (Image: getty)

Contact tracing

Contact-tracing apps are being designed to help prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections (Image: getty)

Speaking to Express.co.uk, he said: “For example, the strength of the signal will vary depending on both the environment and the materials immediately surrounding the phone.

“This could mean that Bluetooth apps produce less reliable results than GPS-based apps.”

The UK’s previous “centralised” app design used a remote server to carry out the contact-tracing.

However, the Apple and Google model uses the devices themselves to carry out the process, which reportedly makes it more difficult for authorities or hackers to access records for other means.

UK coronavirus map

UK coronavirus map (Image: Express.co.uk)

Mr Callow described how there is a fine line between a “contact tracing app” and “mass surveillance tool”.

He said: “A government could, for example, use location data to identify persons who have participated in protests.

“Whether you consider this to be concerning really depends on how much you trust your government.

Contact tracing

There is a fine line between a “contact tracing app” and “mass surveillance tool” (Image: getty)

“On the other hand, location data can be extremely useful as it enables health authorities to quickly identify the possible source of a cluster of cases.”

Mr Callow also explained that in order for contact tracing apps to be effective, they must be widely used which can only happen if the public trust that they are safe.

He said: “Contact tracing apps can play a big part in the fight against Covid-19, but that will only happen if people trust them.”



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