The NHS contact tracing app could put us all on tag. It didn’t have to be this way.

Silkie Carlo / May 7, 2020

A version of this blog is in today’s Daily Mail.

Are we expected to be a nation of citizens on state-issued digital tags?

Brits are currently faced with some of the biggest sacrifices we’ve made in generations. We have suspended liberty itself with the intention of saving lives. But not all of the trade-offs we’ve been asked to make will protect public health. In the case of the NHS contact-tracing app, the abandonment of privacy is not only unnecessary, it’s dangerous.

Our country’s response to this pandemic relies on the willing participation of an informed public. We have not stayed at home because we fear the strong arm of the police. We stayed at home because we’ve wanted to protect ourselves and our neighbours. The NHS volunteer army of 750,000 that is serving the most vulnerable people was not conscripted, but instead arose from a sense of duty.

And now the Health Secretary tells us that downloading the NHS app is our ‘duty’. But he has failed to answer basic questions. He has batted away serious concerns about the GCHQ-backed app – that it centralises data collection that cannot be deleted, sometimes fails when the phone is locked, drains battery, is prone to serious ‘mission creep’ (like policing lockdown) and is likely to break data laws along the way.

Why did he reject the best technology on offer from Apple and Google that does not suffer from these problems? Why is their app good enough for Germany, Italy, and Austria but not for the UK? He cannot simply pretend these concerns don’t matter – they do. They’re the basis on which people will decide whether to download and use the app or not.

The Government needs the same number of people to use the app as those that use WhatsApp for it to have an impact, around 60 per cent of the population. But mass uptake will only happen if the public trusts the app and believes it will work. We deserve answers.

I joined Big Brother Watch because I fear we’ve long risked losing the British tradition of civil liberties and are slipping into a surveillance state. Most ‘smart’ devices, including phones, leach data from us to feed big tech companies. Our right to privacy balances the power between the public, corporations and the state. And medical privacy is also vital to ensure people seek care when they need it most.

The project is somewhat tainted by the over-confident, tech-solutionism that has been foisted on the public, and the public purse, for far too long. The life-saving goals of any contact-tracing app in the UK will be severely limited by the fact that fewer over 70s use smartphones, and by the lack of testing. Instead, the app will broadcast instructions to stay at home on the back of self-diagnosis. Would you obey – even if it meant cancelling your holiday, or wedding – on that basis?

An app could work, but it’s not a silver bullet. The Health Secretary was wrong to tout the app as a ticket to get ‘our liberty back’. If it does work – and we all want it to – it will need to have privacy and trust at its core.