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Google fixes a bug in the Android NHS Covid-19 app

A strange bug in the Android version of the NHS Covid-19 app that saw users receiving a ‘loading’ notification has been fixed, according to Google.  

Several app users on Google‘s Android operating system reported receiving a notification which simply said the app was loading.

However, when they tapped on the notification, no change took place within the app, and the notification did not disappear.

Google has confirmed this was an issue with its Exposure Notification System, which powers the app’s contact tracing, but has reassured users that the flaw has been fixed and no adverse effects found due to the incident.

Google has confirmed this was an issue with its Exposure Notification System which powers the app's contact tracing, but has reassured that the flaw has been fixed and no adverse effects found due to the incident.

Google has confirmed this was an issue with its Exposure Notification System which powers the app’s contact tracing, but has reassured that the flaw has been fixed and no adverse effects found due to the incident.

The app, used in England and Wales and forming part of the Test and Trace scheme, uses Bluetooth on smartphones to keep an anonymous log of other app users that an individual comes into contact with, informing them if they have been near someone who tests positive for the virus and what to do next.

‘Late in the evening on January 12, an issue with the Exposure Notifications System on Android began causing delays in the checking of potential exposures for those with apps installed,’ a Google spokesperson said in a statement on the incident.

‘We have issued a fix. It may take a few hours for devices to catch up, and in some cases we will work directly with developers to help with recovery. The issue did not cause the loss of any data or potential exposures.’

Google said that potential exposures continued to be logged during the incident and that in most cases, any notifications delayed by the incident will resume.  

A number of app users on Google's Android operating system reported receiving a notification which said the app was loading

A number of app users on Google’s Android operating system reported receiving a notification which said the app was loading

The incident affected a number of contact tracing apps around the world which use the Exposure Notification System created by Google and Apple – though Apple devices were not impacted during this incident. 

Unsurprisingly, many frustrated users took to Twitter to discuss the loading bug.

One user wrote: ‘What is this now? NHS covid-19 app on my android phone behaving odd with stuck loading message for over 10 hours!’

Another added: ‘I wonder how many people are turning off the NHS Covid 19 app this morning due to the constant ‘Loading…’ notification on their phones. Exactly what we need to maintain confidence in the system…’

The NHS Covid-19 app advises that users should restart their phones if they're still experiencing the issue

The NHS Covid-19 app advises that users should restart their phones if they’re still experiencing the issue

Unsurprisingly, many frustrated users have taken to Twitter to discuss the Android loading bug

Unsurprisingly, many frustrated users have taken to Twitter to discuss the Android loading bug

One user joked that the issue is 'exactly what we need to maintain confidence in the system'

One user joked that the issue is ‘exactly what we need to maintain confidence in the system’

Twitter user Paul Shenton was stuck with the bizarre loading message for over 10 hours

Twitter user Paul Shenton was stuck with the bizarre loading message for over 10 hours

And one said: ‘Seems the NHS Covid-19 App is getting stuck showing a Loading Notification on Android, if I load the app itself its not telling me to do anything like isolate so I guess its an issue with the app.’  

Since launching in September, the app has suffered from several bugs, including a ‘ghost notification’ issue where users were sent alerts saying the app had detected a ‘possible Covid-19 exposure’ but would then give no further instructions or details.

Another glitch saw users who had their phone set to a language other than the 12 initially supported by the app be presented by a blank screen when opening the app.

Both issues were fixed last year.

How the NHS Covid-19 app works and the reasons behind some of its flaws

 The NHS contact tracing coronavirus app , called NHS Covid-19, is based on  a piece of software, an API, built by tech giants Apple and Google, who came together in an unprecedented alliance at the start of the pandemic.

It works via Bluetooth, which is fitted to almost every smartphone in the world, and involves a notification system to alert people if they have been in close proximity with someone diagnosed with Covid-19.

Apple and Google let the NHS determine what it deems to be suitable exposure for a a person to be considered at risk for infection. 

The NHS set the limit as within 2m for 15 minutes. 

However, Apple and Google have openly said the app is not perfect, due to the fact Bluetooth is being used for something it was never designed for. 

Therefore, phones with the app installed can struggle to tell exactly how far away another device is. 

Although the threshold is set at 2 metres, it emerged in early trials that people as far away as 4m were told thought by the technology to be less than 2m away. 

Officials say that about 30 per cent of people told to self-isolate may have been more than two metres away from a positive case.

However, they claim most of these cases will be at a distance of 2.1m or 2.2 m, with 4m being a rarity.  

Apple and Google have been aware of this issue since the inception of the project and have recently revealed they have used hundreds of different devices to help calibrate the system. 

It is claimed the NHS app is more accurate than other contact tracing apps around the world which also use the Apple and Google API. 

All the technology for the app is done in the phone itself, and no external servers are used, helping protect user data.

No location or personal data is sent to Apple, Google or the NHS and all interactions between phones are anonymous.

The randomised and untraceable links are only stored for two weeks on the phone itself before being permanently deleted. 

A person can also choose to wipe their data clean, either in the app’s settings or by deleting the app.  

In a conference call this week, representatives from both Google and Apple said the app is not intended to replace manual tracing, but to enhance it. 

They added that, in the tests done in-house during development, 30 per cent of the exposure notifications that were triggered were not picked up by manual contact tracing. 

For a person to receive am infection notification via the app, both they and the infected person must both have had the app at the time of their interaction.

During this interaction, on a bus for example, the phones acknowledge the device has met the 2m/15 min criteria. 

The devices then automatically exchange anonymous ‘keys’ with each other via Bluetooth. The keys randomise and change approximately every 15 minutes. 

If a person then receives a positive test, they receive a unique PIN from the NHS and input this in the app. 

Once they have done this, all the anonymised keys from the phone of the infected person are added to a cloud database. 

Every app is constantly checking in with the same cloud database to see is any of the ‘keys’ it has come into contact with match the keys of positive tests. 

If a person’s phone finds a match, that person then receives a notification informing them they have been exposed and may be infected. 

The app then provides that person with detailed information from the NHS on the next steps. 

The mobile data needed for the app to work is being allowed free of charge in the UK by network carriers and it is believed the app has negligible impact on battery life.    

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