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Government plans for digital contact-tracing app spark concerns at Liberty

24 April 2020

THE GOVERNMENT has announced that, in the coming weeks, the NHS will be launching a contact-tracing app with the ultimate goal of reducing the transmission of the Coronavirus. However, civil rights and privacy-focused campaign group Liberty has voiced its concerns over what it believes to be the "enormous risks" presented by "invasive technology".

Commenting on the technology itself, NHSX CEO Matthew Gould stated: “The app automates the laborious process of contact-tracing with the goal of reducing transmission of the virus by alerting people who may have been exposed such that they can take action to protect themselves, the people they care about and the NHS. We believe this could be important in helping the country in beating the Coronavirus and returning to normality.”

The app will be part of a wider approach involving contact-tracing and testing. The authorities are working hard to make sure that all these elements are properly linked up in order to make it as seamless as possible and to ensure the app complements more traditional measures that, working in tandem, can protect vulnerable groups and those who cannot (or simply don't want to) access digital tools. 

Gould added: “The app will afford members of the public a simple way in which to make a difference and help keep themselves and their families safe. The technology is based on research evidence developed by epidemiologists, mathematical modellers and ethicists at Oxford University’s Nuffield Departments of Medicine and Population Health. Once the app is installed, it will start logging the distance between the user's phone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed using Bluetooth Low Energy.”

Gould is at pains to point out that this anonymous log of how close a given individual is to others will be stored securely on their phone. He continued: “If you become unwell with symptoms of COVID-19, you can choose to allow the app to inform the NHS which, subject to sophisticated risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to those other app users with whom you came into significant contact over the previous few days.”  

Further, Gould commented: “The app will advise you what action to take if you've been close to someone who has become symptomatic – including advising you to self-isolate if necessary. The exact advice on what you should do will depend on the evolving context and approach. It will be based on the science and approved by the Chief Medical Officer. Scientists and doctors will continuously support the fine-tuning of the app to ensure that it's as helpful as possible both to individuals and to the NHS in managing the pandemic.”

Security and privacy

The Government has been at pains to point out that the data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research. Users will always be able to delete the app and all associated data whenever they wish to do so. Gould stressed: “We will always comply with the law around the use of personal data, including the Data Protection Act, and will explain how we intend to use it.”

Public health doctor and programme lead Geraint Lewis stated: “We have prioritised security and privacy in all stages of the app’s development, starting with the initial design and carrying on into user testing. We've drawn on expertise from across Government and industry to review our design and help test the app. We're working with Apple and Google on their welcome support for tracing apps around the world. As part of our commitment to transparency, we will be publishing the key security and privacy designs alongside the source code so that privacy experts can look under the bonnet and continually help us to ensure the security involved is absolutely world class.”

The plans have been consulted on with the Information Commissioner, the National Data Guardian's Panel and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, as well as with representatives from Understanding Patient Data and volunteers who provided a patient and public perspective. An Ethics Advisory Board has been established for the app, chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery from University College London (who previously headed the Nuffield Council on Bioethics).

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has issued a short statement on the matter. It reads: “People must have trust and confidence in the way personal data is used to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The ICO also recognises the vital role that data can play in tracking the pandemic and the need to act urgently. We have been working with NHSX to help them ensure a high level of transparency and governance. We will continue to offer that support during the life of the app as it's developed and rolled out and, indeed, when it's no longer needed.”

Response from Liberty

Civil rights and privacy campaign group Liberty isn't convinced. Clare Collier, advocacy director at Liberty, said: “The steps we take to tackle this pandemic must not be presented as a question of civil liberties versus public health. By presenting surveillance tools as a solution to lockdown, the Government is drawing on the willingness we've all shown to make sacrifices in the face of this unprecedented crisis, while at the same time refusing to show that it's taking seriously the enormous risks presented by invasive technology.”

Collier added: “Contact-tracing technology may require us to sacrifice deeply sensitive personal information, but there can be no question of state bodies or private companies sharing our personal data other than what is absolutely necessary. It's vital no-one is coerced into having the app installed. Using it as a condition for returning to work or everyday life, for example, will inevitably lead to discrimination.”

In conclusion, Collier observed: “The opportunities presented by technology should be fully investigated, but seeking quick solutions in surveillance tools that rely on our personal data creates serious long-term threats to our rights and our ways of life. The Government needs to focus on providing a public health response that ensures we come through this crisis with our rights intact.”