skip to main content

Why coronavirus tracing app needs privacy safeguards

27 May 2020

Why coronavirus tracing app needs privacy safeguards

In December 2016, Professor Joe Cannataci the UN Special Rapporteur for privacy in a digital age spoke at the launch of the Commission’s annual statement in Belfast. He started by asking how many in the audience were in favour of electronically tagging and tracking the whole population aged 12 years and over. No one put their hands up. His second question was how many people own smart phones. Almost everyone’s hands went up. Well he pointed out, you can be tracked whether you like it or not regardless of turning your phone on or off. In a nutshell, this sums up our contradictory approach to privacy. We value our privacy, yet rely too much on smart phones and other devices to think too deeply about it. Moreover, who has time to read the page after page of complex information about privacy put out by tech companies before ticking Yes and agreeing to hand over our personal data.

This issue is about to be thrown into sharp relief as both Britain and Northern Ireland are looking at a contact tracing app as one way of controlling the spread of Coronavirus. In effect, an app is downloaded on a person’s smartphone and will store the data of any other person’s smartphone when it is within a defined proximity for a specific period of time. If a person tests positive for Coronavirus, then the app notifies all the other contacts that they may themselves have been infected. This allows those people to be offered advice, for example to get tested or self-isolate. It can potentially minimize the spread of the virus.

A centralised app (NHSX) is being trialled in the Isle of Wight. As it happens, nine of my family live there. Four have downloaded the app including a sister and niece who work in a care home and for the NHS respectively. Five relatives have not – their reasons have nothing to do with privacy concerns, rather they reflect age, poor health and technological abilities. These family members are among the individuals most vulnerable to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. As a result, there are issues of both practice and principle at stake.

So how do we balance the potential benefits alongside privacy safeguards? The Westminster Joint Select Committee on Human Rights has just published a report offering a rights based route to approaching the issue. The report recognises the government’s responsibility to protect life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the legitimacy of developing a contact app. Meanwhile, it also highlights Article 8 of the Convention and our right to privacy and family life. This right is a qualified right and can be interfered with, but only in very specific circumstances. In practice, any interference must be set out in law and can, among other reasons be to protect health and public safety. The interference should be proportionate and be no more than is required to deal with preventing the spread of the Coronavirus.

The Select Committee concludes that privacy and other human rights protections should be placed in legislation with independent oversight and regular reviews of progress built in. The legislation would enshrine the clear and limited purpose of the app, that the data should not be accessed for any other reason or shared with third parties. Further, the data should only be held locally on a person’s phone and must be automatically deleted every 28 days. Legislation could also create a duty that personal data held centrally must be subject to the highest security protections and standards. Other human rights considerations involved will include non-discrimination in the areas of immigration and employment. In a highly unusual move, the select committee have taken the decision to publish a draft Bill, reflecting how strongly it feels about the need for statutory safeguards.

The report also canvasses the question of whether a centralised approach where data is shared by a central server managed by the NHS is better for privacy than a decentralised model where most data is stored locally on a person’s phone sharing as little data as possible with the NHS. To date, government is piloting its centralised NHSX model arguing that it provides greater scope for data analysis though there is a debate inside government in London about the effectiveness of the NHSX app and privacy issues. The report also notes that in Northern Ireland there will be specific issues around coordination within the UK and Ireland. The Irish government has opted for a decentralized system that has been used in the majority of other countries to date. Ensuring effective compatibility will be one of the delicate practical and political conundrums to eventually land in the in-trays of Northern Ireland Executive ministers.

A contact tracing app will only work if it wins the confidence and trust of people in Northern Ireland. Part of winning that trust will be about openness with the public including providing statutory safeguards, independent oversight and regular review. To date, legislation is not the Westminster government’s preferred route. In this case, reassuring words from a lectern will not be enough. In addition, a strategy needs to be put in place for individuals who because of their age, health or other circumstances cannot or will not use the app. The manual contact tracing of those with positive tests for the virus outlined by Robin Swann is a good start.

Harnessing technology for our benefit during the pandemic is welcome but must not be at undue expense of our right to privacy. That is why the Select Committee approach is so commendable.

Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

This article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 27 May 2020.

Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now