Smartphones can be used to digitally trace Covid-19. But not if the public don’t download an app over privacy fears – or find it won’t work on their device
The idea of the NHS tracing app is to enable smartphones to track users and tell them whether they interacted with someone who had Covid-19. Yet this will work only if large proportions of the population download the app. No matter how smart a solution may appear, mass consent is required. That will not be easy. Ministers and officials have failed to address the trade-offs between health and privacy by being ambiguous about the app’s safeguards.
Instead of offering cast-iron guarantees about the length of time for which data would be held; who can access it; and the level of anonymity afforded, we have had opacity and obfuscation. It is true that we are dealing with uncertainties. But without absolute clarity about privacy the public is unlikely to take up the app with the appropriate gusto.
Action to prevent deeper access to our private lives and data is more essential than ever
Health data paints a rich picture of our lives. Even if you remove your name, date of birth and NHS number to “anonymise” yourself, a full health history will reveal your age, gender, the places where you have lived, your family relationships and aspects of your lifestyle.
Used in combination with other available information, this may be enough to verify that this medical history relates to you personally and to target you online. Consequently, whenever the NHS shares health data, even if it is anonymised, we need to have confidence in who it goes to and what they can do with it.
When data about us influences a credit rating or a hiring decision, we are unlikely ever to find out