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Contact tracing

This month has been one of the first times I've had to really question what my job is. It's easy to reach out for high-handed aphorisms like "report facts" or "speak truth to power", but it's somewhat rare – particularly in technology journalism – for those lofty ideals to interact with the day to day work of being a reporter.

But this month, my job has led to two of my beliefs clashing head-on, with no obvious way to reconcile them.

First, a brief bit of background: a contact tracing app, in current parlance, is an app which uses the bluetooth radio in your phone to keep a record of who you've been in close proximity to. If you catch Covid-19, you can then use the app to warn those people that they may have caught the disease from you while you were pre-symptomatic; hopefully, they can then self-isolate before they too become infectious, and you can cut off transmission.

There's a debate over whether these apps should be centralised or decentralised: in the former example, the NHS gets to see the warning you send out, and know roughly how many people you may have infected. In the latter, it sees nothing other than the fact that you are infected. The difference sounds like one of privacy, but is increasingly more about technology: a decentralised app can use tools built by Apple and Google to smooth the way, while a centralised app can allow people to mark themselves as "maybe infectious" based on symptoms alone, then upgrade their alert to "tested positive" later on.

And so I have two difficult beliefs. 

The first is that contact tracing apps represent a hugely promising step out of the current state of affairs, and everyone who can install one ought to. The second is that the UK government's current path to rolling out a nationwide contact tracing app is sub-par at best, likely counterproductive, and possibly even dangerous.

I'm not a propagandist. My job is not to convince you to install an app, even if I believe that doing so will be best for the country, will save lives, will allow me to get a pint in my local pub in 2020 rather than 2022. My job is to, well, report facts, and speak truth to power.

But it feels bad to write an article like this, reporting that the Government's misguided approach to developing the app means it won't work in situations where everyone is using iPhones, and see people responding with "I will never use this app, Dominic Cummings can't have my personal data". 

Some of that response is based on genuine misunderstandings, things that journalists should be correcting: there is a weird link between Cummings, a tech company called Faculty, and a project called the NHS Covid Datastore, but that is a separate project from the contact tracing app; as best we can tell, Cummings has no real involvement in the contact tracing programme, which is much more of a Matt Hancock creation.

But another part of it is based on a broader feeling of mistrust, which is, well, legit. This is a government that openly laughed at the idea of "loser's consent", the concept that a political winner should still seek the support of their defeated foes in order to govern for the whole polity, not just their own base. The 48% were "remoaners" who needed to accept their loss, and the country needed to be governed according to the beliefs of the median voter – the median voter for Boris Johnson, in particular.

Telling people to trust this government is not a good feeling. It's certainly not my job. But when accurately reporting on the genuine flaws of the governments approach to fighting Covid-19 harms that trust, and in the process hurts the fight against Covid-19, it causes me to pause, a bit.

In my newsletter, I can be a bit more open. Please do install the NHS Covid-19 app when it rolls out nationwide next week. The app has problems, which we will continue to highlight, but the worst problem of all is if it's not running on every single phone it can. 


I don't understand how, like, gardening columnists do it. "It's spring, again. All the plants are the same as last year, they're plants, they don't change much. I've been writing this column for 25 years, can I not just reprint one from the 90s? Plant your bloody plants."

One of the things I enjoy about tech is that the field changes. News is news, of course, but even the so-called "evergreen" pieces go out of date. The security advice of 2020 is not the same as the security advice of 2010; the best apps for a new phone vary by the month. 

I imagine it could be a bit dispiriting to have to do the same sort of work in an area that is most consistent. I've been working on a piece about how to get back into running – apparently actually finishing the couch to 5k programme qualifies me as an expert, or at least a relatable figure – and it's bleakly hilarious how many ways people have written "start slow" over the years.

Anyway, keep an eye out for my piece, advising you to "start slow", some time next week.