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After 8 weeks in lockdown, it is fair to say that people are at a stage where they want to be out of the house and getting back to a level of normality in their lives. In order to control the coronavirus, the UK government are trialling an app to assist with contact tracing of the virus. Whilst we may all want to return to a level of normality, should this be at the expense of our privacy?

The NHS contact tracing app is downloaded onto a user’s smart phone and members of the public are asked to record any symptoms of coronavirus they may be experiencing. In order to track users, the app will use Bluetooth signals which transmit an anonymous ID between devices. The app runs in the background of the user’s phone and gathers data. The user is required to ‘opt-in’ by downloading the app and imputing any flu-like symptoms experienced. This information will be used to determine whether their symptoms meet the threshold for having Covid-19. The app then gives an alert to other users you have been in contact with to notify them that they have been in close contact with someone who may have the virus. The symptomatic user will be able to receive a test to determine whether they have the virus. If they test positive, they will have to isolate for 14 days to prevent further transmission. If the test is to come back negative, the user who had been in contact with the symptomatic individual will receive a second alert to let them know that they have not been exposed to the virus.  

The app is currently being tested on the Isle of Wight, with intentions to extent it usage across the UK if it is successful. Mass gathering of personal information in this way is unprecedented in the UK therefore there have been a number of concerns raised regarding how this information is to be stored, who will have access and what it shall be used for. These are all very valid concerns.

Whilst we are living in strange and unprecedented times, this does not mean that the public should be expected to compromise on their right to privacy. It has been suggested that the current version of the app fall short of complying with the Data Protection Act 2018. According to human rights groups, there are concerns that introduction of the app could open the door to generalised surveillance of the population. It has also been suggested that the current legislative framework allowing the app does not afford protection to users.

The Human Rights Committee had drafted a bill which calls upon government to define the purpose for which the app and the data captured shall be used, prohibit the use for other purposes, define who has access to the data, and require enhanced security certification. In its current form, legislation is said to be in breach of GDPR, Data Protection Act 2018 and the European Convention on Human Rights. As downloading and using the app will be at the discretion of users, they will have to be reassured regarding what will happen with their data. Where individuals have concerns regarding their privacy and what is happening to their information, they will be reticent to engage with the app resulting in fewer users and less ability to engage in contact tracing. The introduction of the bill comes as security flaws have been found in the current version of the app being used in the Isle of Wight.

As much as we are all keen to have lockdown measures reduced, this does not have to be at the expense of the basic human right of privacy. It is entirely possible that the app can still be used as a means of contact tracing while ensuring the privacy of user’s is protected, something which the government should explore prior to wide scale usage of the app is encouraged.

Blog by Eilish Lindsay, Solicitor

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