Parliamentary committee calls for additional privacy for NHS tracing app

Written by John Johnston on 12 May 2020 in News

MPs and peers express concerns over ‘unprecedented data-gathering’

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Ministers must improve data protections in the NHS coronavirus tracing app before it is made widely available to the public, an influential group of MPs and peers has said.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights warned there were still "significant concerns" about the safety of the application, which they claimed had "potential longer-term effects on personal freedoms and concerns around surveillance".

The NHS app, which is currently undergoing a pilot study on the Isle of Wight, will alert users if they have been in significant contact with an infected person, and allow medical staff to follow the spread of the illness

Health secretary Matt Hancock has already said the public had a "duty" to download it when it is made available, but insisted the software had been developed to bring "high privacy" to users’ data.

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But in a new report, the committee said they were "not reassured" the measures went far enough to protect the public "regarding surveillance and the impact on other human rights".

While the group said the app could "pave the way" out of lockdown if successful, they hit out at the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the plans as they demanded ministers sought the urgent approval of MPs.

They wrote: "Previous extensions of state powers of surveillance and data collection for the purposes of terrorism prevention have been legitimised by legislation scrutinised by Parliament; and so, it should be for public health purposes. Without clear efficacy and benefits of the app, the level of data being collected will not be justifiable and it will, therefore, fall foul of data protection law and human rights protections."

They added: "The government and health authorities must at all times be transparent about how the app, and data collected through it, is being used, including publishing ethics reviews and sufficient technical specification information relating to the app and to data security."

Meanwhile, the group also called for a review of the app's safety every 21 days to be carried out by the health secretary to ensure there had been no breaches of sensitive data.

Labour MP Harriet Harman, who chairs the committee, said: "Assurances from ministers about privacy are not enough. The government has given assurances about protection of privacy so they should have no objection to those assurances being enshrined in law.  

"The contact-tracing app involves unprecedented data gathering. There must be robust legal protection for individuals about what that data will be used for, who will have access to it and how it will be safeguarded from hacking. Parliament was able quickly to agree to give the government sweeping powers. It is perfectly possible for parliament to do the same for legislation to protect privacy."


About the author

John Johnston is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @johnjohnstonmi.

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