Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 18, May 16, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Coronavirus Contact Tracing and Tracking
App Trials Begin on the Isle of Wight

Trials have begun on the Isle of Wight of the Coronavirus Contact Tracing and Tracking smartphone app for tracking cases of Covid-19. The trial began with NHS and other key workers on May 5, followed by the rest of the island's residents two days later. During the trial, an Isle of Wight postcode is required to download the app. The plan is to roll out the app across the country within weeks following the trial.

The app is being developed by National Health Service Experience (NHSX). This body, a private company, was launched in February last year by Health Secretary Matt Hancock to lead the digital transformation of the NHS.

An "anonymous log of how close you are to others will be stored securely on your phone," explained NHSX CEO Matthew Gould. "If you become unwell with symptoms of Covid-19, you can choose to allow the app to inform the NHS which, subject to sophisticated risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to those other app users with whom you came into significant contact over the previous few days." The app will then advise on whether to self-isolate or to seek testing for the virus.

"In future releases of the app, people will be able to choose to provide the NHS with extra information about themselves to help us identify hotspots and trends," he said.

It is a matter of fact that, based particularly on the experience of China and neighbouring countries in dealing with the outbreak, and past experience of other epidemics, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been advising strict comprehensive measures to contain Covid-19. These measures include quarantine, testing, contact tracing, social distancing, and direct mobilisations of people. As early as February 20, the WHO stated that "the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans" are based on "extremely proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts, and an exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance of these measures". [1]

It is also a matter of fact that, to its shame, the British government ignored these guidelines. The results of this course of inaction are now becoming evident.

Given the initial refusal to follow the WHO guidelines, it could be asked as to what is the aim of the proposal for tracking now? In this respect, various people have been speaking out over their concerns. People reject being used as "guinea pigs" and are demanding to have a say. Moreover, concerns are being expressed about the potential for mass surveillance. This is not a concern unique to Britain: a major point of general contention has been over the use of centralised contact tracing, where government bodies centrally record data on people and their contacts. A recent letter signed by over 300 academics [2] expressed opposition to such centralised models.

The British approach is not only centralised, but NHSX are reportedly discussing the collection of de-anonymised identities, allowing the centralised tracking of contacts and movements between identifiable individuals. Further, it is known that the National Cyber Security Centre, a subsidiary of GCHQ, has been involved in the app's development [3].

These concerns arise because, particularly at this time, people are excluded from decision-making over such crucial matters that affect their lives, and there is no discussion over aims. Coupled with this is confusion-mongering and disinformation about contact tracing that is disorienting public opinion by depriving people of an informed view and, moreover, an outlook.

The outlook of those in authority is that people are the problem, while the outlook of the people is that they are the solution. It is not the people who did not carry out the WHO guidelines, and only now has the government embarked upon testing and tracing. Just like the previous policy shift from complacency to lockdown, the move is arbitrary, without consultation. In such a situation, when authority is so out of step with the times and the conditions, when authority is built on sand, is mistrusted, and wields its police powers increasingly despotically, speculation and cynicism is rife.

The issue is one of control, particularly control of the information and how it is used. The conditions are such that interests of those making the decisions conflict with the people's interests. The ruling elite still conceive of the crisis as a blip; they want to continue to rule in the old way and return to "business as usual". All talk of an "exit strategy" is framed in these terms, which in turn sets the agenda for lifting lockdown, testing and contact tracing. Indeed, various sections of business, such as the car industry, are already returning to operation. The issue is posed as one of striking a "balance" between safeguarding health and well-being and safeguarding "the economy".

In the final analysis, it is only by activating the human factor that the virus can be contained, and to do so is profoundly democratic, democratic in a new way, a way that involves everyone affected in taking the decision and abiding by it, so that the people exercise their own authority directly. Technology can be used to facilitate the human factor - it is part of the human factor. But when decisions are arbitrary, things are simply reduced to matters of law and order, and contact tracing itself becomes a form of the police powers. Technology is then set up in opposition to eliminate the human factor, to impose authority from outside.

The issue is not to oppose contact tracing. Neither is it to divide over whether pro or anti the app. Contact tracing is a fundamental guideline in suppressing the pandemic, and indeed, it is the government that should be held to account for not following the guidelines promptly and strictly. However, people need to be on their guard. Any shift from surveillance of the epidemic to surveillance of the people must not be permitted.


[1] "Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)", WHO, February 16-24, 2020

[2] Gareth Corfield, "Academics: We hate to ask, but could governments kindly refrain from building giant data-slurping, contact-tracing coronavirus monsters?", The Register, April 20, 2020

[3] "UK infosec experts flag concern over NHSX contact tracing app", New Statesman, April 29, 2020


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