UK Opts for Centralized Contact Tracing

By Chand Bellur

April 27, 2020 at 5:51 p.m. PT

  • Google and Apple developed APIs fostering the development of decentralized contact tracing apps.
  • Decentralized contact tracing preserves privacy and decreases energy consumption; however, it’s less effective than centralized efforts.
  • UK’s NHS developed an innovative contact tracing system using Bluetooth and centralized data management, while preserving smartphone battery life.

Contact Tracing Essential to Mitigating Coronavirus Pandemic

The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we know it. Instead of going to work and engaging in social activities, much of the world is still under stay-at-home orders.

Economies can’t be locked down forever. After a certain point, economic devastation can also claim lives. For every 1% increase in unemployment, approximately 20,000 Americans perish. Some studies place this number closer to 40,000 deaths. Unemployment exacerbates alcoholism, suicide, stress-related illness, and other maladies.

Testing, tracing contacts, and isolating the infected is the gold standard for pandemic containment. This method is time-tested and works.

Apple and Google recently teamed up to develop contact tracing application programming interfaces (APIs). These code libraries allow developers to create apps quickly. Apple and Google aren’t producing the apps. Instead, they’re offering tools so others can create contact tracing apps.

Unfortunately, this leaves contract tracing technology open to many possibilities. While time is of the essence, nations, non-profits, and technology corporations are debating the best way to accomplish the task. 

Centralized vs. Decentralized Contact Tracing

Centralized testing uses a server to run application logic. In this model, smartphones are client devices. They interact with each other, tracking incidents where two devices come in close contact. With the data uploaded to servers, application logic determines at-risk contacts.

Critics suggest that the centralized approach violates privacy rights, with user data persisting on servers. Countless cloud technologies store user data on servers. iCloud, Google Play, Netflix, and virtually all service-backed apps, store your data on servers. Pandemics are a substantial justification for server-side data persistence, considering that tech corporations use the technology to sell products and target advertisements.

Consumers, however, have grown more aware of privacy issues. The EU and UK have championed privacy with absurd and extreme laws requiring cookie banners and other measures. If users are wary of having their whereabouts and health status recorded, they may choose to avoid the app altogether.

Google and Apple back a decentralized approach, where application logic resides solely on smartphones. When two users running the service meet, their apps exchange keycodes. If an infected user reports his or her status via the app, users with corresponding keycodes receive messages advising them to self-quarantine, get tested, or follow other directions.

Both approaches require participants to own a smartphone, install an app, and co-operate with disclosure. The centralized strategy allows health authorities to analyze data at the expense of diminished privacy. If location data is stored, however, outbreak hotspots can be identified, producing greater pandemic control.

UK Opts for Centralized Data Gathering

Given the greater data visibility of centralized contact tracing, the UK NHS will move forward with its solution. They’re already ahead of the pack, with a Bluetooth-based solution that doesn’t drain smartphone batteries.

The NHS app launches in the background when another phone with the app is in proximity. The two devices share Bluetooth information and upload data to NHS servers. After the exchange, both apps passivate. This technique allows for accurate contact tracing without draining the battery.

The NHS prefers a centralized solution, as it provides greater access to data critical to understanding the pandemic. It also allows the NHS to contact users who may be infected or have come in contact with a COVID-19 positive individual. This capability concerns privacy experts.

Given that app usage is optional, anyone with privacy complaints can forgo using the app. Unfortunately, this means that the app is less effective.

Both methods for contact tracing applications have advantages and disadvantages. Nations have aligned themselves with different architectures. France joins the UK with their affinity for a centralized approach. Other countries, including Germany, Switzerland and Estonia, have opted for a decentralized approach. The United States will likely follow suit.

Contact tracing apps are no substitute for trained healthcare workers engaged in disease mitigation. Not everyone has a smartphone, and not everyone will install the apps. If we want to end this pandemic, technology must be a tool, not the ultimate solution. We need healthcare workers to do the contact tracing, with the hope that apps will assist in the effort.

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