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Sun, 7 June 2020

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The public need confidence that the Contact Tracing App will protect their privacy

The public need confidence that the Contact Tracing App will protect their privacy

Whether from the public or the private sector, there have been wholesale data breaches with personal information falling into the wrong hands, says Harriet Harman MP.

4 min read

We need a new, bespoke law to protect the data collected using the Covid-19 Contact Tracing App

Testing, tracing and isolating are the most important next steps in progress towards easing the lockdown. Key to that is the Covid-19 Contact Tracing App which we will all download onto our smartphones.

This will record everyone we come into contact with, allow anyone to report if they have Covid symptoms or test positive, and then tell everyone they’ve been in contact with so they can self-isolate and stop it spreading.

We can’t stay locked down indefinitely and yet the virus, for which there is as yet no vaccine or cure, is still very much out there. So being able to go out safely, with those who’ve been in contact with the virus staying home, is crucial.

But to make it work, there must be unprecedented information gathering on us and we’ve got to be prepared to download the app. Unless most people download the app it won’t gather enough information to be effective.

But hitherto, there’s been a very checkered record of protection of our personal information. Whether from the public or the private sector, there have been wholesale data breaches with personal information falling into the wrong hands.

In the last session of Parliament, the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that the system for protecting privacy in this digital age was completely failing. Even the big data gathering companies have no idea what happens to personal data, who ends up using it, and for what.

It is passed from one organisation to another with the individual who supplied the information having no idea what they’ve signed up for.

Putting the responsibility on to the individual when they can’t possibly know what their data is being used for is an abdication of government responsibility.

Just as the global financial crisis exposed the fact that the whole financial services system was unsafe as even those trading in derivatives had no clear “sight lines” about their products, so the data gathering companies don’t have a clear sense of where the data ends up.

Currently, protection of data is built on the notion of consent when you sign a form or click a box agreeing to give your personal information.

But putting the responsibility on to the individual when they can’t possibly know what their data is being used for is an abdication of government responsibility.

When you go into a building you consent to do so. But if it’s unsafe and you get injured the Government don’t say it’s your responsibility as you consented to go in.

They take responsibility ensuring the building meets safety standards. It should be the same for data protection, even more so now we’re about to enter a system for unprecedented data gathering.

We need a new, bespoke law to protect the Covid Tracing App data. To help the Government, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has drafted a Bill which will lay down the purposes for which the data can be used and prohibit its use for anything else.

It will lay down who can have access to the data, set up a contact tracing privacy tzar to deal with complaints and provide for all the data to be deleted after the pandemic.

The Health Secretary has written to the JCHR giving assurances on privacy. But the reality is that a ministerial letter never protected anyone from anything.

There’s no reason for the Government to object to their assurances being put into law. The current system of data regulation is complex and hopelessly out of date.

The public need confidence that the Covid Tracing App will protect their privacy.

Our Bill will give that confidence and we can do it in time for the national rollout.

Parliament acted with unprecedented speed to give the Government the powers they need to fight the virus. We can do so again now, to give the public the protection they need.

Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights 

Read the most recent article written by Harriet Harman MP - Parliament needs to protect its own integrity

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