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BCS calls for safeguards in coronavirus contact tracing app

01/05/20

Mark Say Managing Editor

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT has come out in favour of the coronavirus contact tracing app but warned the Government has to overcome “perceived Big Brother elements” to ensure the public get on board.

Hand holding smartphone over laptop

It has published a policy position paper that backs the use of the technology but also calls for safeguards in how it is used and a strong communications campaign to increase public confidence.

This comes shortly after the Council of Europe published a statement urging a careful approach to the deployment of such apps around the continent, highlighting the need for strong data governance.

The contact tracing app, currently under development by NHSX, will alert smartphone users if they are in – or have been – in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

BCS vice president Kathy Farndon said: “The biggest threat to the success of the contact tracing app is that perceived ‘Big Brother’ elements of the implementation, for example the use of a centralised database, may have a negative effect on uptake from the public and minimise the chance of reaching the 60% uptake implementation target.

“BCS considers that a sustained campaign to increase public confidence in IT, supported by assurances of real safeguards, open and ethical data governance and protection by design is fundamental. 

“Contact tracing apps must be founded on ‘privacy by design, privacy by default’ principles and the Government must set a high bar for transparent and ethical data governance as its future legitimacy and trust with public data is at stake.”

She added: “It is vital that the impacts of a contact tracing app – as part of the UK’s response to Covid-19 – are considered in terms of the key challenges it presents such as data protection, privacy, public trust and civil liberties.”

Recommendations

The policy paper makes a number of recommendations on the use of the app, including that it is deployed in tandem with mass levels of testing for Covid-19 to provide the necessary data to support the wider effort against the virus.

Along with this the Government and the NHS has to work strategically with the UK’s devolved administrations and civil society on a wide ranging communication programme on the app’s installation and use, including guidelines on what is needed for maximum compliance and how the public can appropriately seek recourse.

There is also a need to ensure minimum interference with people’s personal data and that data is not sold or shared beyond its intended stated purpose.

The latter point has been partially addressed by NHSX in its statements so far on the development of the app.

The BCS paper reflects concerns that have been widely aired about tracking apps creating new risks to privacy – despite the purpose of overcoming the coronavirus.

European perspective

Earlier this week, the Council of Europe published a statement on digital contact tracing from its data commissioner Jean-Philippe Walter and the chair of the Committee of Convention 108, Alessandra PIerruci.

It says the technology can only be successful as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes widespread testing, and if it is widely used by the public. The latter depends heavily on trust and making the use of an app voluntary rather than mandatory.

It says digital contact tracing should be done on the basis of records of connections between devices rather than on the basis of location data – so there would be no record of where the user had been – and that the data processed should be the strictest minimum for the purpose.

Data should not be used for unrelated purposes, such as commercial or law enforcement, should be deleted after the pandemic subsides, and any used for research or statistics should only be done so with explicit consent.

Overall, the statement urges a cautious approach towards the adoption of the technology.

“Despite the urgency, digital contact tracing raises new questions that cannot be neglected before deciding to implement such population-wide measures,” it says.

“Beyond privacy and data protection considerations, digital contact tracing approaches raise questions of inequality and discrimination that also have to be considered.”

Image from NHSX, Open Government Licence v3.0

 

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