Experts: NHS' COVID-19 tracking app should respect privacy

Westminster Bridge with Big Ben in the background.

Technologists have called on the NHS to preserve privacy and be open with any technological solutions it develops to tackle COVID-19. The group warned that cutting ethical corners could lead to trust in the NHS being undermined. The letter was published after plans to release an app to tackle COVID-19 was announced.

In the letter, the experts highlight three things which NHSX (the digital wing of the NHS) should follow:

  • Firstly, there should be a culture of working in the open. They said that information about the project should be regularly communicated to the public and that machine-readable data and models should be published to “build trust and minimise speculation".
  • The second measure is to introduce emergency governance measures which include privacy and rights impact assessments and the drafting of an expert governance panel. The panel would ensure people are held accountable over data use. It should include public and patient participation.
  • The final measure says that collective mechanisms for a social license should be developed. This would ensure that those affected by data collection have a say. The group also wants to see clear terms and conditions published for any new applications so everyone knows what they’re signing up for; it pointed to the Singaporean government’s app, TraceTogether, as an example.

It said that these measures are vital to follow because they’ll set a template for what comes next with regards to “the delivery of health services in the UK.” The technologists also cast doubt on how effective these measures will be in this country as 22% of adults don’t have a smartphone (this rises to 55% in those over 55). The overall message that the group hopes to get across, though, is that “testing times, do not call for untested new technologies.”

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