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Test, Trace and Track: the cyber-securities of the UK’s COVID-19 personal tracing apps


Information Security Group

About the Project

The Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security for the Everyday at Royal Holloway seeks to recruit a PhD student who will explore the development and construction of the UK COVID-19 contact tracing app.

Since the global spread of the COVID19 virus, a number of countries across the world have implemented their own form of a testing, track and trace services. Some of these different national contexts have developed what have become known as COVID tracing apps. Whilst these systems have worked very differently - Israel used the powers of its intelligence and security agency Shin Bet and emergency law in what the Israel Democracy Institute has characterised as a ‘Central Mandatory mass surveillance system’ - there are other systems in the Republic of Ireland, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, South Korea and elsewhere. Two broad approaches have coalesced around the systems underlying the function of the app. The decentralised approach (as advocated by large tech firms Google and Apple together), which stores data locally on phones, and the centralised approach, which reports data to a centralised server potentially under government control. The differences between these approaches have led to heated debates about privacy and where to place trust in large-scale digital systems handling sensitive data.

The UK government, already late to lock-down in contrast to neighbouring European countries, has so far failed to deliver a national track and trace app, its development seemingly pushed into the long-grass. This is in favour of a massive recruitment drive to recruit thousands of track and trace personnel to call and guide members of the population who have come into contact with people who have tested positive for the virus.

Although some university research groups have developed their own apps which are available to download and use, the UK’s initial proposal for a national app – which was piloted on the Isle of White and developed by the NHS’s digital unit NHSX - was beleaguered by technical issues. It’s design was also controversial, with a group of information security and cyber security specialists signing an open letter expressing numerous concerns, not least about the possibility of the app for mass social surveillance given the extensive information the app could hold over social contacts (the ‘social graph’). Others have expressed concern that the app will not be widely used by the poorest and most vulnerable, perhaps without access to a smart phone, who cannot afford data plans, who share a mistrust for government and state authority, or the systems which they are already marginalised by.

The project will investigate the historic and continued development of a UK tracing app and examine key issues including:

- The cryptographic debates and the control over personal information
- Trust in government systems during the COVID crisis
- The role of publics and communities weighing their obligations to so called ‘public duty’ and personal self-care.
- The construction and representation of scientific and (cyber)security knowledges through the app and its development.
- The mediatisation of health surveillance through personal apps and smart phones.
- Digital marginality and social inequalities.

We seek applicants with an interest in cyber-security but come from a social science or humanities discipline, with at least an undergraduate degree in a field cognate to Human Geography; Politics and IR; Sociology; Criminology; Science and Technology Studies; Social Studies of Health or Medicine, or the Medical or Digital Humanities. Ideally, applicants will have experience in the collection, handling and ethical treatment of qualitative data, and experience of research methodologies such as ethnography and participant observation, semi-structured interviews, policy and documentary analysis.

Prospective applicants are welcome to discuss with Prof Peter Adey () and Prof Keith Martin ().


Funding Notes

The studentship includes
Tuition fees: Equivalent to the value of the standard UK/EU tuition fee.
Maintenance: £21,285 for each academic year.

To qualify, applicants must satisfy EPSRC eligibility criteria and must have
- settled status in the UK,
- been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for three years prior to the start of the grant (apart from occasional absences);
- not been residing in the UK wholly or mainly for the purpose of full-time education (this does not apply to UK or EU nationals).

In order to apply please visit the CDT website and follow the application instructions.
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