Contact-tracing app: Dangerous tool or necessary evil? Data Protection and Privacy Vs “the greater good”

Introduction

Zoom quizzes, lockdown, social distancing, furlough: just a few of the words and phrases we have been unable to escape for the past two months. Life pre Covid-19 now seems like a distant memory. Despite the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that the lockdown rules would be relaxed slightly, we are still a long way off to returning to normal.

Contact-tracing app

As a result of Covid-19, 7.5 million people are currently taking advantage of the UK Government’s furlough scheme, putting unprecedented strain on the economy. Understandably, the Government is keen for the country to get back on its feet as soon as possible. One of its key strategies to help things return to normal is with the upcoming roll out of the new NHS coronavirus contact-tracing app (App). Put simply, the App, using Bluetooth signals, is designed to track people down who have been in ‘close contact’ with someone who has Covid-19. These people may then be asked to self-isolate to halt any further spread of the virus.  For clarity, ‘close contact’ means being within 2 metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.

The App is currently being trialled in the Isle of Wight, and at the time of writing, has been downloaded around 55,000 times. If deemed successful, it will be implemented across the rest of the UK in due course.

Privacy concerns

It’s been less than 2 years since the UK’s data protection laws got a massive overhaul thanks to the GDPR. In addition, devices such as Alexa, Google Home, and Hive are quickly becoming part and parcel of our daily lives. As a result, there is an ever increasing awareness of how companies collect and use our data, raising very real concerns about our privacy.

It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that there have also been many concerns about how exactly the App will monitor users and what information it will collect, and potentially share, about them.

According to the NHSX (the NHS’s digital arm), the App will not collect personally identifiable data from users and therefore, users of the App will remain anonymous. Moreover, the App will not track users’ location and will not, for example, monitor their movements for law enforcement purposes, such as to locate, identify, and fine users who are not self-isolating. Nor will the app be able to access any other information on the users’ phones. Crucially therefore, App will be used for the sole purpose of managing and (hopefully) eliminating the spread of Covid-19.

Notwithstanding NHSX’s comments about how the App will be used, many users are still concerned about the risk of privacy intrusion. However, as explained above, such concerns are unfounded, and in any event, users are free to delete the App and its data at any stage.

Benefits

Taking everything into account, the use of the App will most likely result in a dramatic decrease in the spread of Covid-19. Surely the benefits of this: countless lives saved, businesses reopening, and significant pressure being taken off the NHS – far outweigh these minor (and unfounded) privacy concerns. 

On this basis, if it helps with to speed up the release of the lockdown measures then we’re all for it on behalf of our clients. Do you agree or not? Let us know.

For advice on the App or any other advice on Data Protection, Technology, IT or Privacy please contact our commercial and IP team on commercial@mlplaw.co.uk or 0161 926 9969