Lancashire police officers were told not to use the NHS Covid-19 app because it could blow undercover ops - despite top brass denying any 'suggestion of security implications'

Police officers in Lancashire were told not to download the NHS Covid-19 app because it could blow their cover during "sensitive" operations, despite top brass denying "any suggestion of security implications", it can be revealed.

Monday, 26th October 2020, 3:45 pm

The day after the app was launched, cops were told in a briefing document, which has since been obtained by this newspaper, that the software could scupper undercover activity by "potentially disclosing officer locations" and "must not be downloaded onto police-issue devices until further information is made available".

It said the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) would be "looking at the specifications and security of the app in due course and we will let you know if our position on the matter changes".

The NPCC previously said forces use a "variety of mobile devices with different system restrictions" so it is "important we have confidence that the NHS app will work for officers and staff consistently across the country".

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The new NHS Covid-19 mobile application (Picture: PA Wire/PA Images/Danny Lawson)

It claimed: "It is for this reason we have recommended officers and staff download the app to their personal, as opposed to work, devices, rather than any suggestion of security implications".

Lancashire Police also said in a past statement: "Members of staff, like all members of the public, are personally able to download the Track [sic] and Trace application should they choose to do so".

But it failed to say it had told officers: "We are also asking those of you who have downloaded it onto your personal device not to carry that device with you, particularly during operational duties".

The force today said its guidance has now been updated, and added: "The guidance is currently that officers and staff are recommended to download and use it on their own personal devices which can be carried in all routine (non-sensitive) business environments.”

Software installed on devices used by police is routinely security tested, it was understood, and there was no suggestion any flaws with the Covid app were identified.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the app was "designed to use the minimum possible data or information" and insisted: "The app cannot track your location.

"It cannot be used for monitoring, whether you're self-isolating or for law enforcement.

"The app cannot be used to access your personal identity or any other information on your phone.

"For example, the app cannot access your contacts, messages, or photos."

The app, which was launched on September 24, uses Bluetooth technology to keep a tab of close encounters with other people and send alerts if one later tests positive for Covid-19.

After being delayed due to technical hitches and concerns about privacy, it has been downloaded more than 16 million times.

A first version was led by the NHS's innovation division but the keys were handed over to NHS Test and Trace on the second version, which adopted an Apple and Google-led system.

Earlier this month, the app was updated after users reported confusion from a notification suggesting they may have been exposed to the virus.

A so-called "phantom alert" caused panic among some who had received it, with reports that the notification would disappear when tapped and show no further information within the app.

The message read: “Possible Covid-19 exposure. Someone you were near reported having Covid-19. Exposure date, duration and signal strength have been saved.”

However, the DHSC said these particular alerts are default privacy notifications from Apple and Google – who created the underlying technology – to alert people that the app is sharing information with the system.

To ease concerns, an update to the app provided a follow-up message, saying: “Covid-19 Exposure Check Complete.

“Don’t worry, we have assessed your risk and there is no need to take action at this time.

“Please continue to stay alert and follow the latest advice on social distancing.”

The DHSC said important messages from the app will always be visible to the user when they open the app, even if they miss the notification.

"Users only need to self-isolate if they get a notification directly from the app advising them to do so,” a spokesman said.

It comes after a recent climb-down on the app’s check-in scanning, which people can use when visiting venues such as restaurants and pubs.

Despite initially being heralded as an important aid to contact tracing efforts, the Government later said it does not expect to send out alerts frequently from the QR code feature.

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