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Jamie Durham
IT Correspondent
5:07 AM 7th August 2020

Track And Trace: Invasion Of Privacy Or Public Health Necessity?

Earlier this year, I wrote an article which looked at whether tech is the answer to preventing a pandemic, and explored how technology should have a leading role in social distancing.

The piece outlined the notion that, although it would take an unprecedented amount of co-operation between companies and countries, it would be possible to anonymously track the interactions of all smartphones – in order to monitor the movements of roughly 45% of the global population.

In the months that have followed, the Government has developed the technology to do this, but thus far it has, unfortunately, appeared to fall flat – with users confused about applications and invasions of privacy. Therefore, a new question has emerged: “Why are they making it seem so difficult, and what are the challenges?”

The limitations of technology

The idea of tech powerhouses, such as Apple and Google, collaborating in a bid to combat Coronavirus, seemed like a match made in heaven during the early days of the pandemic – but that’s exactly what happened.

Pooling resources to allow Governments to create applications which would ‘track and trace’ people who might be at risk of infection became a reality when the brands agreed to work together, and circumvent the limitations placed on application developers – particularly with regards to the Apple operating system. This meant applications did not need to be opened and running in order to provide vital access to Bluetooth and GPS data.

Surprisingly though, the team working for NHSX decided to not take Apple or Google up on their offers and the decision was made to create its own app – albeit with limitations in use. In my opinion this is now, at best, an interesting use of Bluetooth technology rather than the saviour of the British economy we, as a nation, were originally hoping for.

An invasion of privacy or public health necessity?

The biggest hurdle of any location-based app is always going to be around privacy. Anything that tracks a person’s location will, by its very nature, be viewed by users as something to be wary of – particularly when it’s created on behalf of the Government.

Therefore, it’s surprising to hear that instead of anonymising the data and not recording the location – in a bid to encourage access – the resulting product does exactly the opposite. While it’s unclear if data capture for the modelling of the virus spread was the driving force behind this decision, in my view, it was the killer blow to the whole venture.

There must be a better way?

Long before COVID-19 took hold, and weeks before the UK went into lockdown, I spoke to the Home Office to present my concept for ‘track and trace’ – which was based entirely around protecting users’ anonymity.
I did not see a reason to record users’ location or details. In fact, the only data that needed to be documented was that two mobile phones had crossed paths. That information could then be recorded anonymously – using any random designation – rather than a user's email address or telephone number.

All that’s required then, is the ability to message the user if they had been found to have had any contact with someone who reported symptoms or a positive diagnosis.
While the collation of additional personal data might be useful, its lack of necessity will only dilute willingness to provide third-party access – severely hampering the buy-in from an already mistrusting British population.
In spite of all this, I still firmly believe the answer to avoiding a second national lockdown for this, or any future pandemic, is technology.

The larger question though, is whether the Government should be involved in creating such solutions. Not only is its track record in digital innovation virtually non-existent, but at present, there’s a lack of confidence in our leaders.

Currently in development is the track and trace 2.0 application, and this time it embraces the opportunity to collaborate with Apple and Google. So, here’s hoping this updated version learns from the mistakes of its predecessor.