Scotland has become the latest part of the UK to launch a nationwide contact-tracing app dubbed Protect Scotland, just over one month after Northern Ireland’s StopCOVID NI became available to download, and while the NHS in England still trials its own Test and Trace app.
Protect Scotland taps Bluetooth signals to identify smartphone users who may be at risk from coronavirus because they were in close contact with other users who later tested positive for the virus.
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The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon encouraged residents to download the app, which is now available across the country for phones supporting iOS 13.5 or later, or Android 6.0 and higher.
“There’s a new way to help fight COVID in Scotland,” tweeted Sturgeon. “‘Protect Scotland’– our confidential contact-tracing app – will anonymously notify app users you’ve been in close contact with, should you test positive.”
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The technology works in the phone’s background, and registers anonymous Bluetooth “handshakes” when two users come into contact.
If a user later tests positive for COVID-19, they will be provided with a code to enter into the app. Protect Scotland will then seek permission to identify and notify contacts deemed risky – those whose “handshakes” reflect an interaction that lasted for over 15 minutes and happened at less than two metres.
The app will advise those contacts on what to do next, such as isolating at home for a number of days or booking a test if they experience symptoms.
NearForm, a technology company based in the Republic of Ireland, helped develop the software used for Protect Scotland, and which is also the backbone of contact-tracing apps built in a number of countries around the world, including Ireland and Northern Ireland.
NearForm’s software is built on a contact-tracing API developed by Apple and Google and released at the start of April, which was designed to protect privacy and personal data. Bluetooth “handshakes” come in the form of random, encrypted codes that do not record identity or location, and are stored locally on users’ devices before being deleted after 14 days.
Cian Ó Maidín, CEO, NearForm said: “This open-source technology was built with privacy and data protection at its core and, through anonymous keys, allows Scottish citizens to engage, protect each other and break transmission chains. The Scottish Government has taken a great approach, using open-source software, that has been peer reviewed and rolled out successfully in Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
In an explainer about the technology, the Scottish health services re-iterated that Protect Scotland cannot be used to track users’ location, or to check if they are self isolating. Nor can it reveal the identities of any close contacts or of people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Lilian Edwards, chair of law, innovation and society at Newcastle Law School, has endorsed the technology‘s privacy commitments. “It’s completely privacy-preserving,” she said in a Tweet. “It does one thing – tells you if you’ve been in close contact with an infectious person. No tricks, no extra data collection. It’s excellent.”
Using the Google and Apple API built into NearForm’s software also means that the Scottish app will be compatible with the Northern Irish and the Irish apps, and that a patient testing positive in Scotland could still warn the close contacts picked up by the technology in other regions.
Although it is still too early to measure exactly how effective contact-tracing apps are, the technology has often been pitched as a helpful tool to complement manual tracing programs. Digital contact tracing, in theory, can significantly reduce the time it takes to alert a contact who is at risk, and can also issue warnings to people, even if they don’t know each other.
Announcing the app at the start of August, however, Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman insisted that the technology would only come as part of the wider Test and Protect system established by NHS Scotland.
“It builds on existing person-to-person contact tracing which remains the most robust method of contacting those who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive,” she said at the time.
Meanwhile, it is still unclear when a country-wide contact-tracing app can be expected in England. Last month, the NHS’s Test and Trace app entered trials on the Isle of Wight and in the London Borough of Newham.
It is the English health service’s second attempt at building a digital contact-tracing tool. In mid-April, the digital branch of the NHS, NHSX, started leading the development of a first version, with initial plans to build an app separately from Google and Apple’s API.
After technical hurdles and months of delay, those plans were axed in favor of a second version of the app, which now makes use of the tech giants’ technology.
No further details have been published since the new app started trials.
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