Monday 8 June 2020 10:30 am

DEBATE: Should we be worried about the privacy issues around the contact tracing app?

Silkie Carlo is director of Big Brother Watch, an independent non-profit organisation leading the protection of privacy and civil liberties in the UK.
and Saj Huq
Saj Huq is programme director at LORCA

Should we be worried about the security and privacy issues around the government’s contact tracing app?

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, says YES.

The government’s contact tracing strategy raises many questions and offers few answers. Why does the UK government, unlike other democracies, want a state-controlled contact tracing app? Why do they want a centralised database? Why are Amazon, Google and Microsoft handling the app data?

It’s not even clear yet whether the app will return from its curious “trial” on the Isle of Wight, or what was learned there.

It seems as though what’s really being trialled is our tolerance.

I half expect Matt Hancock has his head buried in the sands of Sandown Beach. The health secretary cannot pretend that privacy concerns don’t matter – they do. If people don’t trust the app, they won’t use it. And he needs an astronomical 80 per cent of smartphone users to use the app for it to have any discernible impact.

Testing remains another key issue — because the app will instruct users to quarantine on the basis of others’ self-diagnosis. We’re expected to imprison ourselves for 14 days on a whim, without receiving a test ourselves.

And to think, Hancock touted the app as a ticket to “get our liberty back”. Perhaps his head is so far in the sand he can’t even hear himself.

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Saj Huq, programme director at LORCA, the government’s cyber innovation programme, says NO.

In a post-Cambridge Analytica world, privacy awareness is important — but no technical innovation is without some kind of risk. Whether developed by tech companies or governments, apps can be hacked. 

Yet citizens freely trade personal data with home assistants and social media platforms for economic benefit all the time. Sharing such data with the NHSx app could bring far greater benefits to society, without actually requiring information that identifies users.

Despite the unavoidable risk, the government has taken steps to be transparent, making the app’s underlying code open source and publishing NCSC blogs to raise awareness of its approach. 

The need for contact tracing, and the pandemic more broadly, has accelerated the pace of our adoption of new technology. Concern over data use through the app could provide a catalyst for the government to ensure appropriate legal, ethical and regulatory frameworks are put in place to keep up with increased adoption and guard against misuse.

We have been willing to sacrifice many freedoms for the common good, as long as they are temporary and necessary. If the app adheres to these principles, UK citizens should trust it to keep them safe.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.