A Covid-19 tracking app might be a key part of halting the spread of the pandemic, but there remain privacy concerns about the project.
A new legal report has stated that any centralised system for contact tracing would lead to “significantly greater interference with users’ privacy and require greater justification”, although a decentralised system – while potentially less effective – would be more proportionate and lawful.
According to The Guardian:
It is not yet known whether use of the app would be mandatory or voluntary. “A mandatory smartphone app would be a significant measure, both legally and culturally,” the lawyers said. “Our view is that there would need to be a clear and detailed legal basis for a mandatory system, set out in specific legislation.”
Sharing data held by healthcare organisations and private companies to assist in combating the Covid-19 pandemic may create “a number of legal problems… resulting in potential illegality”, the legal opinion says.
“Given the nature of the data likely to be shared, the government will need to undertake a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) prior to the processing of any personal data,” it adds. “The results of that DPIA should be made public. Those steps may be in progress, but we are not aware of them having been completed thus far.”
On plans for immunity certificates, the report adds: “Such a step would engage a number of fundamental rights under [human rights] and EU/UK legislation concerning the right to privacy and protection of personal data. Any proposals would require very substantial evidential justification to show that they are necessary and proportionate. We are unsure if such evidence could be provided.”
The issue with making the Covid-19 tracking app voluntary, however, is that it may also render it ineffective. A study has found that 56% of the UK population, amounting to approximately 80% of all smartphone users, must use it if the virus is to suppressed.
This could be problematic. When a similar Covid-19 tracking app was introduced in Singapore, only 12% of the population made use of it, leading to another lockdown on 7th April after another spike in cases.
Carrying out a DPIA is a requirement for any new system, and the government should be open and honest about how it intends to store and process the data which is collected.
With the app due to be trialled this week on the Isle of Wight, it’s clear that there are still many privacy concerns surrounding it which need to be addressed. But with the Welsh chief medical officer recently stating that people would be willing to give up some of their freedoms to tackle the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether these concerns will be addressed.