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Fri, 27 November 2020

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Any contact tracing app must respect privacy and maintain public trust

Any contact tracing app must respect privacy and maintain public trust

To work, the app will need significant up-take by the public; but the public will only use the app if they believe it is safe and effective, says Daisy Cooper MP | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

If the public don’t have confidence in the coronavirus app, they won’t use it. The Liberal Democrats’ plans for a Safe Trace App Law would fix that.

Test, trace, isolate. The evidence from other countries shows us that this is how we will ultimately get to grips with coronavirus and begin to end this awful crisis. It’s the only way to ease the lockdown while preventing a new surge in infections.

When it comes to tracing, the Government is putting a lot of stock in its new NHSX smartphone app, which is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight and which, Ministers tell us, will be rolled out across the country in the next few days.

The idea is that when someone with coronavirus symptoms reports them through the app, everyone else who they may have come into contact with who also has the app will be alerted, advised to self-isolate, and informed how to order a test.

However, an app alone will not end this lockdown.

For a strategy of Test, Trace and Isolate to work, the Government will also need to ensure a substantial increase in both the number of people being tested for coronavirus and the speed of those tests. On both counts, the UK still lags far behind other countries.

The Government will also need to ensure there are enough trained, expert tracers in local communities across the country.

An app could help pick up some contacts, but it cannot replace the difficult, sensitive contact-tracing work of well-trained humans.

In other words, a contact tracing app could play an important part in a broader strategy to test, trace and isolate – but only a part.

To work, the app will need significant up-take by the public; but the public will only use the app if they believe it is safe and effective.

Already, experts are raising serious concerns about whether the Government’s app will work. T

hey warn that it may not work when your phone is locked or when it’s running in the background.

They warn that it will drain your phone’s battery, so it won’t work for long.

They warn that it will be incompatible with other countries’ apps, including Ireland’s, so it won’t work as people start travelling again.

Ministers must urgently explain why they have chosen a system that many are warning will make the app less effective and less safe.

These problems stem from the Government’s decision to reject plans for a “decentralised” app – as recommended by the Information Commissioner and many technology experts, and being implemented in many other countries – and pursue a “centralised” one instead.

Under the first system, information about the other phones you “meet” is recorded on your smartphone and the contact matching happens on your device; under the centralised system, all of that information is uploaded to a central server owned and run by the Government.

Ministers must urgently explain why they have chosen a system that many are warning will make the app less effective and less safe.

It is vital that the Government gets this right first time. It must not lose valuable time and risk losing public confidence by reinventing the wheel when there are already effective models it could use.

There are also concerns about privacy, given the scale and the personal nature of the data that will be generated, collected and stored when this app is rolled out.

For enough people to use the app for it to be effective, the public will need to have confidence that their personal data is secure. The Government must therefore ensure that people’s data is protected and their privacy is respected.

That’s why the Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to bring forward a new Safe Trace App Law, to ensure that the app will be a genuinely effective tool to keep people safe, and to give the public confidence that they can use it safely.

Our Safe Trace App Law would provide clear legal safeguards for this enormous collection, storage and use of people’s personal data – whether by the app or by human tracers – including a guarantee that your data will be deleted within 21 days of being collected, on a rolling basis.

It would make sure the app is truly voluntary, by creating legal safeguards against discrimination so that no one can be excluded from any space if they cannot or choose not to use the app. It would also create significant penalties for the misuse of any data, as has been done in Australia.

To keep people safe, the Government must be open and honest about the decisions it is making in the design of this app. If the public don’t have confidence in it, they won’t use it. The Liberal Democrats’ plans for a Safe Trace App Law would fix that

Read the most recent article written by Daisy Cooper MP - The 10pm curfew is putting public health and jobs at risk

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