Eager to Corral the Coronavirus, U.K. Tests a Disputed Tracing App

LONDON — Not for the first time in the coronavirus era, the British government is going its own way.

This time, the National Health Service is moving forward with an app to track the spread of the virus despite questions about the technology’s effectiveness, privacy safeguards and compatibility with key iPhone and Android features.

Officials are counting on the technology, which is designed to alert anyone who may have come into contact with an infected person, to help ease lockdown orders that have been in place since March. But a dispute over privacy — and over how much data the authorities can collect — has hampered the rollout and pitted the government against Apple and Google, which are pushing a competing design for exposure tracing.

In this instance, the British government may be overmatched by the Silicon Valley titans, which control the software that runs on nearly every smartphone on the planet. Unless Britain changes course, the companies are refusing to provide access to a Bluetooth signal on iPhones and Android phones that is needed to measure proximity.

That has left Britain with a stark choice: either alter the design or risk releasing an app with major technical flaws.

At its heart, the debate is about balancing public health and individual privacy. In Britain, which has a history of robust government surveillance to fight terrorism, officials say that more can be learned about the virus by collecting lots of information in a centralized database. They argue this will provide more research capabilities to spot emerging hot spots and patterns of how the virus spreads.

By contrast, Apple and Google are promoting a decentralized approach that would protect against invasions of privacy. But the government says that privacy considerations are only part of a complex calculus it is trying to navigate.

To enforce their view, the companies will provide important access to a phone’s Bluetooth signal only to tracing apps that store health information on a person’s smartphone. This prohibits data from being uploaded and stored on government servers.

Many have raised additional concerns that the British app allows self-reporting, a feature that could easily be abused.

There are signs that Britain may be bending to the criticism. Mr. Gould told Parliament this week that the government was continuing to speak with Apple and Google, and that the country could change its approach.

Widespread testing and contact tracing are universally cited as critical steps to restarting economies without reigniting the epidemic.

Apps are designed to significantly speed up contact tracing by quickly identifying people who are most at risk of infection. The technology works by using a smartphone’s Bluetooth signal to measure proximity to nearby devices.

After an infected person shares the information on the app, anyone they have had close interactions with will receive an alert with instructions to self-isolate. A log is kept of the phones of people who have come within a certain distance of each other, like those sitting next to each other on a bus or subway.

After people report symptoms through the app, their information will be sent to the N.H.S. It will then perform an automated risk assessment to identify other app users who may have come into contact with the infected person.

But critics say the British app will not work effectively unless it uses code provided by Apple and Google. In Australia, an app with a similar design has been criticized for technical problems. Germany recently reversed to support the Apple-Google specifications. Austria, Italy and Switzerland are using it as well.

Luciano Floridi, director of the Digital Ethics Lab at Oxford University, warned against “looking at technology as the savior,” when a pandemic requires broader public health and medical solutions. He said more testing and thousands of human contact-tracers were needed to track the disease.

“This will be a small component in a much larger approach,” said Mr. Floridi, who is on a government advisory board related to the app. “Hopefully, it will not do any harm.”

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