Is your phone able to run the NHS test and trace app? Here’s why the app won’t work on ‘older’ devices, and how mobile operating systems go out of support.
Have you installed the NHS Covid-19 app yet? Or have you been put off by the myriad stories circulating on social media that it’s being run by Serco (it isn’t), that it’s tracking your every move (it isn’t) or that it’s sending out alarming false alerts that you need to self-isolate (it’s sort of doing that, but not really)?
Or perhaps you just don’t have a phone that’s new enough? We’ve seen many complaints from people that their phone can’t run the app.
It’s true that only phones that can either run iOS 13.5 or Android 6 (Marshmallow) can run the app, and it’s worth digging into why that is.
Low-energy Bluetooth chips
The app works by using the Bluetooth low-energy chip in your iPhone or Android device to detect other phones nearby also using the app. It logs how much time you spend near those other phones and how close you are to them, and stores those logs on your phone.
If someone then tests positive for COVID-19 and chooses to upload their logs, you will get an alert telling you that you need to self-isolate.
All of that requires hardware that’s only found on newer phones: older devices simply don’t have the required low-energy Bluetooth chip.
However, the launch of the app has exposed a gulf between what the general public and those involved in tech consider an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ phone.
Earlier this year we published research that revealed that up to a billion Android devices around the world are running on an old, unsupported version of Android. In our reporting, we covered the kind of malware that could be lurking on those old phones.
More than one billion Android devices are at risk of malware threats.
That's 40% of users. Are you one of them?https://t.co/qCOkU8lxwz
— Which? (@WhichUK) March 6, 2020
Since then I’ve had many, many conversations with friends, Which? members, TV and radio hosts and others about this problem. Many people, quite rightly, are horrified when they discover that their older device, which seems to work perfectly well, isn’t safe to use and should be replaced.
The root of this problem is that Google, which manages the version of Android most of us in the west use, does not update the platform after three years.
That means not only will a phone not get any more new features in new versions of Android once it’s past its end-of-life date, more crucially, it won’t get any security patches.
The news is slightly better with iPhones: Apple supports its phones for up to five years. The general rule of thumb with iPhones (and iPads) is that if you can’t install the current version of iOS, then it’s time to replace your device. For the record, the oldest iPhone that can install iOS 14 is the iPhone 6S.
Apple does occasionally put out updates for devices it’s no longer officially supporting: the last update it put out to iOS 13 was to roll out the underlying software framework (the ‘API’) that allows the NHS Covid-19 app to work. If your phone can download and install iOS 13.5, you can run the NHS Covid-19 app.
The most recent version of Android is Android 11, which will be on many new phones bought now. Most phones bought in the past year will be running Android 10, and if your phone is running Android 9, also known as Android Pie, you should still be getting security updates.
The NHS Covid-19 app also works on phones running the now unsupported Android versions 6, 7 and 8 (Android Marshmallow, Nougat and Oreo).
Data from Statista suggests that most Android phones globally are running Android 9, or Pie (31.3%), but there are still a fair number of phones on older versions.
How ‘old’ is your phone?
The introduction of the COVID-19 app has focused many people’s minds on how old their phones are.
It’s infuriating to have to think about replacing a device that seems to work perfectly well, and it’s particularly frustrating when we think about the impact on the environment of devices that only have a short shelf life.
All I can say is: I really sympathise, but I’m also here to say that if your phone can’t run the COVID-19 app, please think about replacing it as soon as you can.
In the meantime, here are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of using an old device:
ℹ Be careful what you download: only download apps from the Google Play store – don’t install apps from any other source. (iPhone users can only install apps from the official App store.)
ℹ Be careful what you click on: it’s a bad idea generally to click on links unless you absolutely trust the source, but if your phone isn’t supported any more, you’re more at risk of accidentally downloading virus, cryptominers and other malware.
ℹ Back up your data: make sure all your precious photos and other files are safely backed up, ideally in two places: a separate hard drive and the cloud. That way if the worst happens, you will at least still have your files.
ℹ Install mobile antivirus: there are many choices in the Google Play Store: pick one from a big, reputable vendor such as Sophos, AVG, Kaspersky, etc. If your phone is very old, you might find that you don’t have much choice, however.