UK: Centralised app abandoned as private firms embedded in government’s collection of health data

The British government was scheduled to launch its controversial centralised contact-tracing app across Britain in June, following a trial run of the app on the Isle of Wight but announced in late June that it would instead move to produce a decentralised app with Google and Apple in the autumn of 2020.

The centralised app was heavily criticised over privacy and functionality concerns since it was first mooted in March, while further criticism was extended after it emerged on May 28 that the related NHS Test and Trace system had not undergone a mandatory data protection impact assessment (DPIA) ahead of its launch.

One of the main issues with the app was that it was centralised, meaning data would be uploaded from phones to a central NHS server for analysis.

Decentralised systems are deemed to have greater privacy and data protection safeguards though concerns with decentralised systems remain.

Liberty campaigned strongly for the British government to choose a decentralised system over a centralised system.

The British government subsequently did a U-turn and abandoned the centralised model amid reports that it has decided to, instead, create a decentralised app using Apple and Google. 


The UK government’s shift in position came weeks after Liberty campaigned strenuously for more transparency.

On May 7, Liberty posed five key questions to be considered in regards to the creation of the NHSX contact-tracing app and data-sharing NHS Dashboard: 1) Is privacy protected in the design? 2) Is the scheme truly voluntary? 3) When does this project end and how long will my data be held? 4) Who is working with the government and can they be trusted? 5) Why do I still have unanswered questions?

On May 28, Liberty also responded to the launch of the NHS Test and Trace system calling for more transparency about the system and highlighting that this was necessary given new powers under the Coronavirus Act allow for police detention, forcible testing and indefinite compulsory quarantine.

Liberty also says questions still remain over the UK government’s plans.

Liberty has also been monitoring the involvement of private companies such as Palantair and British artificial intelligence start-up Faculty in the NHS’s collection of health data.

Pic: Towfiqu Photography / Getty Images / Tech Crunch

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