The topic of the NHSX COVID-19 contact tracing app has been at the centre of many security debates lately. The discussion has been fuelled by security professionals, conspiracy theorists, and everyone in-between. However, many of the voices have not represented the British population that the application is designed to protect. With this in mind, Anomali, a cybersecurity company specialising in threat intelligence and analysis, conducted a survey of the British public in order to ascertain some of the key issues that have arisen during since the app was announced.
The primary findings have revealed that a significant percentage of the population are reticent to download a contact tracing application proposed and funded by the government. In fact, nearly one-third (29%) of those surveyed explicitly refused to download the app, while a further 27% are undecided. This means that more than half of the British public are not fully onboard with the plans for the application. There are many contributing factors to the apprehension of this application. The most frequently cited caution at 48% was a lack of trust in the government to safeguard personal information from cybercriminals. Similarly, 36% of people worry that the government would use this application as a cover-up for state surveillance. While it is no surprise that there is deep mistrust for the government, it is quite an interesting revelation that the average consumer is so engaged with how their personal information is used and processed.
Another major issue with the proposed roll out of the NHSX COVID-19 application is its accessibility. In fact, half of the people surveyed (50%) know at least one person who does not have the necessary technology to support the NHSX app. When considering the previously mentioned percentage of surveyed citizens that are either reticent to download the contact tracing app, don’t have the equipment required or just flat out refuse, poses several issues for the developers. Jamie Stone, Head of EMEA at Anomali proposed the following paradigm. “The rule of critical mass demands that at least 60% of the population utilises the app in order for it to be effective. However, these findings point to a significantly diminished pool of users and thus, the critical mass fundamental to the app’s performance now hangs in the balance. Moreover, many of the individuals without the necessary technology likely come from an older generation, or from low-income backgrounds. In this way, excluding the most vulnerable of society from any benefits this app might bring.”
Here Stone raises an interesting point. This app is designed to prevent the spread of a disease that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of society. Therefore, by proposing a solution that potentially neglects the most vulnerable amongst us, the NHSX COVID-19 tracing app fails to serve those that it was designed to protect.
This being said, despite the lack of engagement in the UK, more than half of respondents (51%) believe that the app will be either somewhat or very effective in controlling COVID-19. In fact, over a third of respondents (39%) agree that downloading the contact tracing app should be made obligatory.
“These findings are truly enlightening,” adds Stone. “On the one hand, the public appear to be optimistic about the usefulness of the NHSX COVID-19 contact tracing app. Perhaps, following months of lockdown, individuals see this as an opportunity to return to normal life whilst maintaining some control over the spread of this disease. Yet, when it comes down to it in practice, the majority of the population are not willing to use the app, and many may not even possess the technology to run it. Without this vital participation, any potential that the app may have had is jeopardised. In other words, we might find that only countries who enforce a strict adoption of the app stand to benefit from the scheme.”
With the sinister prospect of government mandated application downloads, we should be thankful that we are not obliged to take part in the tracing scheme unless desired. Perhaps this will change in the future. However, now have the right to remain sceptical. At least until a solution is delivered that can assure cybersecurity and complete inclusion.