Sunday 12 April 2020 10:55 am

Coronavirus contact tracking app sparks privacy fears

Government plans to launch a mobile app that will track the spread of coronavirus infections have sparked warnings over privacy breaches.

The NHS is preparing a contact tracking app that will alert users if they have come too close to someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Ministers hope the technology will make it possible to start lifting the most stringent social distancing measures from late next month.

Lord Evans, former head of MI5, said the app would be key to combatting the pandemic, but warned it was a “severe intrusion into personal privacy”.

Writing in the Sunday Times today, the former spy chief said the government risked losing public trust unless it was transparent about its plans and imposed time limits on its use of personal data.

“People may consider the kind of surveillance needed to keep Covid-19 at bay a price worth paying, but public confidence will only be retained in the longer term if the right controls and accountability are in place,” he wrote.

Details of the project, which is being led by NHSX, have not yet been publicly confirmed.

However, the app is believed to use Bluetooth signals to detect and then store a record of nearby phones.

If someone tests positive for Covid-19 they can record this on the app, which in turn will alert people who have been in close contact.

It is thought there will be a delay between initial contact and the alert to ensure the individual was not identified.

Combined with a ramping up in testing, the app is said to be a key part of the government’s strategy for lifting the lockdown.

Health secretary Matt Hancock is said to be considering ways to incentivise people to download the app. A critical mass of at least 50 per cent of the population is required to make the technology effective.

One potential solution would be telling people they can resume normal life and work if they download the app, the Sunday Times reported.

Under plans currently being considered, the lockdown would be lifted sector by sector in May, rather than on a geographical basis or allowing young people to resume normal life first, according to the report.

Evans said the government should learn its lesson from the use of intrusive surveillance techniques in counter-terrorism operations in the wake of 9/11.

“Government needs to be completely open about what techniques are being used and why, so members of the public know what is going on,” he wrote.

He added that the app required a “transparent legal basis” with new legislation as well as “redress” for anyone who felt their privacy had been violated.

Earlier this month a group describing themselves as “responsible technologists” urged the NHS not to “cut ethical corners” in their efforts to innovate quickly in response to coronavirus.

They warned that location and contact tracking “could be used as a means of social control”

The government has said it takes privacy issues seriously and its plans are in compliance with data protection laws.