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COVID-19: Contact tracing apps and the privacy challenges that need to be overcome

15 April 2020

Several countries are harnessing tracking technology to curb the spread of COVID-19. Whilst the use of such technology could have significant public health and economic benefits, the use of novel technology has raised understandable concerns over privacy.

Tracking technology has been used to achieve these benefits in a variety of ways. For example, Taiwan has adopted ‘geo-blocking’ technology which notifies authorities when individuals leave their homes or their phone runs out of battery. South Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Russia have all adopted GPS data to digitally track the spread of COVID-19 and, in some cases, restrict the movements of citizens depending on whether they are categorised as high or low risk.

Not all technological developments have gone this far. There are a number of other contact tracing apps  in development or use, including in the UK. Users of these apps track whether they have symptoms or have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The app then notifies other users who have been in contact with such individuals and advises them on self-isolation measures.

Contact tracing apps operate using a variety of means. An emerging technology uses Bluetooth to track phones that are within close proximity to each other, allowing health officials to identify people who have been close to others who develop COVID-19.

NHSX, the digital transformation wing of the NHS, is developing a contact tracing app. According to the health secretary Matt Hancock: “If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app and the app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you’ve been in significant contact with over the past few days, even before you had symptoms, so that they know and can act accordingly.”

Google and Apple has announced that they will allow for apps to track users of both of their respective operating systems, meaning that contact tracing apps could have the capacity to monitor a large proportion of the UK population.

This technology has the potential to help to ease lockdown measures more quickly. As such, it could have considerable public health and economic benefits. There are, however, obvious privacy concerns associated with such large-scale tracking technology.

The data protection regulator has said: “Where this data is properly anonymised and aggregated, it does not fall under data protection law because no individual is identified. In these circumstances, privacy laws are not breached as long as the appropriate safeguards are in place.”

This clearly begs certain questions as to the adequacy of anonymisation, and also the retention of data once it is no longer needed.

One difficulty with Bluetooth technology is that it would use unique device IDs which could ultimately be de-anonymised. According to recent reports there are concerns about the de-anonymising of data if it were later deemed to be proportionate to do so and whether it can be properly deleted once the crisis is over.

More generally, there are also concerns that undue pressure could be placed on individuals to use contact tracing apps, for example by health insurance companies or employers, and that practically speaking the freedom to choose will therefore not exist.

Amy Bradbury, one of our data privacy lawyers, said: “There are undoubtedly a number of different interests at play and it is clear that contact tracing apps would only be effective if they were used by a significant proportion of the population.

“It is therefore vital that appropriate privacy safeguards are properly considered and put in place to ensure that the public health benefits can be achieved without compromising the privacy of app users.”

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