ICO’s verdict on the COVID-19 Contact Tracking Technology

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has given a green signal to the new contact tracing app ready to beat the spread of the virus. Will the public interest be upheld? The public data and sensitive information such as contacts and location data might be at stake. Is the greater good a justifiable purpose for this vulnerability? Let’s find out.

According to the ICO, this app meets the requirements of data privacy. Had there been any issues with the privacy protection through this app the ICO would not have allowed the technology to go further. 

However, may people and data protection contenders are baffled at how can this be? The contact tracking app works by identifying infected individuals using their phones, the place they have been and the contacts they have. The app then allows the users to revisit the chances of the virus being transmitted to them, by tracking the possibilities of contact with a carrier.

A layperson would be confused if this can be done without infringing upon the privacy of those carrying the virus and those coming in contact with the virus. Especially because phone contacts and location is involved. And the layperson will not be wrong to wonder this.

Another criticism that the app has been facing throughout its research period is whether the government will use this extreme form of surveillance to monitor the personal lives of individuals. Furthermore, whether this app will be able to keep data flow protected? Can this be sold to other companies who may want to make billions of pounds over the transfer and exchange of big data? 

Lastly, a major concern surrounding the hot discussion on this has remained whether the idea will be carried out with similar care in other countries or not? The UK, by doing so, will be setting a major precedent for many countries to follow. While in a democracy such as the UK, serious efforts can be carried out to ensure that the rights and the freedoms of people are not undermined, in other, weaker democracies this may become problematic. 

The app under research in the UK is designed to be mindful of the GDPR and the Data Protection Act. Yet, the use of contact tracking in the UK, which is not bound to remain a secret can cause a stir in the world. The government’s in other countries may use this data as a part of their law enforcement programs, other causes, political gains. The transparency and the use of the data lawfully can not be guaranteed in many countries, with weaker legal systems and poor checks and balances.

The ICO said that this contact tracking technology is able to ‘fulfils standards of transparency and governance.’ The ICO went over every single stage of the tracking technology, it has attempted to break down each procedure to look out for potential issues. After this audit, it is ready and willing to offer support to NHSX during the development and implementation of the app’s entire lifecycle.

The app was launched earlier this week. The new contact tracing app works by automating the process of contact tracing. It works by reducing contact with the contagion by alerting people. People who may have been already exposed to the deadly virus may also be warned. This level of security and prevention is essential to combat such a poignant virus.

Now, it will be up to the people to take action to protect themselves. Whether the government may intervene after the person has come into contact or serious exposure, is still unclear.

According to the NHS, “The app will be part of a wider approach that will involve contact tracing and testing. We are working hard to make sure that all these elements are properly lined up, to make it as seamless as possible and to ensure the app complements more traditional measures that, working together, can protect vulnerable groups and those who cannot or do not want to access digital tools.”

Although this sounds like a rosy science-fiction solution for such a grave issue, if allowed to run freely, the app can show magnificent results. It is essential, however, for all stages of the app and the technology to go through the legal requirements.

“Once the app is installed it will start logging the distance between phones nearby that also have the app installed using Bluetooth Low Energy. If anyone gets symptoms of COVID-19, this app will help individuals to notify NHS and trigger an anonymous alert to those other app users with whom the affected individual came in contact over the previous few days.”

Whether the use of this app among people will be made necessary by the law or will it remain up to the public is also unclear as of now. Another question that arises from this development is whether the people without a smartphone will be able to participate in this technology and how so?

The NHS further clarified, “In future releases of the app, people will be able to choose to provide the NHS with extra information about themselves to help us identify hotspots and trends.” 

Now, this can prove to be the essential means of communication in this unprecedented time. The communication or feedback channel between the healthcare professionals, the government and the public can help in improving many conditions. There are hotlines in places, but this could help in the creation of favourable quick intel-generation to help the officials move forward.

Another great possibility is that “Those of us who agree to provide extra information will be playing a key role in providing additional information about the spread of COVID-19 that will contribute towards protecting the health of others and getting the country back to normal in a controlled way, as restrictions ease,” said Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX.

The ‘NHSX’ contact tracing app respects data privacy principles’, says ICO.

According to the ICO’s official statement, “People must have trust and confidence in the way personal data is used to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The ICO also recognises the vital role that data can play in tracking the pandemic and the need to act urgently. We have been working with NHSX to help them ensure a high level of transparency and governance. We will continue to offer that support during the life of the app as it is developed, rolled out and when it is no longer needed.”

In the past,  Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham mentioned in her blog post that the data protection laws should not stop the development of innovative technologies that may be able to fight the spread and limit the virus. 

She further mentioned that the fact that the world is going through a collective health emergency calls for unique but fair methods to combat the crisis. She further clarified that if the technology is able to satisfy principles such as transparency, fairness, and proportionality, the ICO may go forward waiving a green signal.

Quoting her blog post, “My office will continue to reflect these exceptional times, and will offer our help and guidance to projects looking to find innovative ways to help society. Put simply, we will want to see evidence that COVID-19 initiatives do what they intend to do – that they work in practice, that they are proportionate, that people can access their rights in law, and that there is a plan in place to stand down measures when no longer needed.”

With a clear reference to the contact tracing app which was ready to be launched by the NHSX then, Denham said that the ICO has been able to “offer our advice and support to NHSX.” This indicates the development had been approved by the ICO throughout the research phase. 

Lastly, she added “In particular, we have spoken about the high level of transparency and governance this app would need, and a focus on a continued review that the data being collected and used is necessary and proportionate. We are committed to providing oversight during the life of the app.”

Apart from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and other public offices have also been a major part of the development of the technology.
The privacy is maintained by a simple step and that is that the app would store anonymous proximity information securely on your phone, and will only share that information with the NHS when you allow it to. 

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