While the English government insisted on trying to reinvent the wheel, semi-autonomous Scotland did the sensible thing and went with the off-the-shelf decentralised model.
The United Kingdom has been anything but when it comes to COVID-19 policy, with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all making their own choices when it comes to lockdown and that sort of thing. For a while it looked like the whole UK would go with a single contact tracing policy, but the UK government has made such a hash of it that Scotland has decided to go its own way.
Protect Scotland uses the platform and API developed by Google and Apple, which unlocks special features of smartphones that run their software that allows them to use Bluetooth at all times to detect proximity to other phone users. This allows users to be notified when anyone they have come into recent contact with tells their app they have the plague. What they then do with that information is their business.
The reason it remains their business is that the data collection is decentralised and anonymised. It doesn’t identify the user, nor their location and, most importantly is not made available to any third party. Not only is this vital from a civil liberties perspective, it also streamlines and speeds up the whole process and the fact that is doesn’t invite the government to spy on you makes it more likely people will install and use the app.
Here’s how the First Minister of Scotland announced it.
📱There’s a new way to help fight COVID in Scotland. ‘Protect Scotland’ – our confidential contact tracing app – will anonymously notify app users you’ve been in close contact with, should you test positive. Please download, and let’s all protect Scotland https://t.co/rdrRPopPB4
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) September 10, 2020
Even the website has been well done, with a focus on transparency and addressing potential concerns about using the app. This is especially surprising from the Scottish administration, which has erred towards safetyism and authoritarianism throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But it appears that even the biggest control freaks are capable of pragmatism from time to time.
“I would encourage everyone to download the free app if they have a compatible smartphone, and help slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Sturgeon. This will support the work of NHS Scotland and has the potential to help avoid local lockdowns. The more people who download and use the app, the more effective it can be in helping to make connections that may otherwise have been missed. This will allow people to self-isolate quickly if they are exposed to the virus, reducing the risk of them infecting others.
“We all have a part to play in suppressing the virus, and downloading the app – alongside other vital measures such as following hygiene and physical distancing guidance – will help protect you, your family and your community. We also know that not everyone uses a smartphone or will be able to or want to access the app, which is why this software is very much there to complement existing contact tracing methods.”
Since the UK government threw in the towel over its misguided, centralised contact tracing app strategy things have gone quiet. If Johnson and co can swallow their pride, the smart thing to do will be to just copy Scotland’s approach. It’s thought that these kinds of apps only work if a significant majority of the population use them, which may never happen, but the best chance is presented by Scotland’s approach and its administration should be commended for understanding that.