NHSX, the digital arm of the National Health Service, has been working on building a coronavirus digital contacts tracing app since early March. The app will warn users if they have recently been in close proximity to someone suspected to be infected with the coronavirus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS was “working closely with the world’s leading tech companies” on the initiative.
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Mr Hancock signalled that using the app would be voluntary.
He said: “If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app.”
“And the app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you’ve been in significant contact with over the past few days, even before you had symptoms, so that they know and can act accordingly.
“All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research.
“And we won’t hold it any longer than is needed.”
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But, at the end of April, a number of UK computer security and privacy experts signed an open letter raising transparency and privacy concerns about the national approach to develop a coronavirus contacts tracing app.
This was followed last week when 300 academics from across the world signed a similar letter urging caution over the use of such tech tools and called for governments that choose to deploy digital contacts tracing to use privacy-preserving techniques and systems.
The open letter from the academics said: “We urge that the health benefits of a digital solution be analysed in depth by specialists from all relevant academic disciplines, and sufficiently proven to be of value to justify the dangers involved.
“It has been reported that NHSX is discussing an approach which records centrally the de-anonymised ID of someone who is infected and also the IDs of all those with whom the infected person has been in contact.
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“This facility would enable, via mission creep, a form of surveillance.”
Mission creep is the extension of an aim into another area, so the original aim of allowing people to know if they have come into close contact with someone that may be infected of coronavirus may become superseded by a more sinister use for the application, such as stalking individuals.
In April NHSX’s CEO, Matthew Gould, was giving evidence to the UK parliament’s Science and Technology committee.
He defended the app and described a couple of scenarios he suggested show why centralising the data is necessary in the NHSX’s view.
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