The digital industry and the associated innovations have matured to the stage that when a serious challenge arises digital technologies have to be considered as potentially playing a key part in the solution. There are no bigger challenges than those we face right now.
The UK government has opted to use a digital contact-tracing application following the precedent set by South Korea, which has indicated that there may be a digital solution in combating the spread of the virus. The government’s contact-tracing app is currently being tested on the Isle of Wight with its public release estimated to be by the beginning of June.
NHSX who is developing the app has decided upon using PEPP-PT. This works by assigning each user an anonymous number associated with their device which then uses Bluetooth to seek out other users close to it and creating a log of those users’ numbers. Subsequently, if a user lists symptoms using the app which indicates that they may have COVID-19 all those deemed ‘at risk’ in the list of assembled numbers that their device came into contact with will be alerted.
The centralised structure of the contact tracing app has been a point of controversy for NHSX and the government. A letter signed by 300 academics from across the world criticising PEPP-PT, chiefly for privacy violations, a section of the letter which voiced this concern criticised PEPP-PT stating:
“We are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large.”.
The perceived issue is that a third-party with sufficient ability and determination could deanonymize the data stored by NHSX. Moreover, some have concerns about the government's mishandling of this data as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) wouldn’t be relevant any longer. The UK’s exit from the EU and the reacquisition of any pooled power means that GDPR would not apply to British citizens’ data. NHSX’s app adhering to GDPR standards is only a requirement until the UK fully separates from the EU on 31st December. An Act of Parliament could then remove any data protection. Consequently, the data acquired through this app is only protected if current or future governments choose to protect it. So as unlikely as it is to materialise there will always be a potential for the data to be used for purposes beyond the tracking of Covid-19 leaving the question in the minds of those favouring a decentralised approach to the storing of the data.
The opponents of the current approach believe a decentralised version of the app to be preferable, pointing to approaches pursued by Apple, Google, and DP-3T. The decentralised approach would store the majority of an individual's data on their device as opposed to storing all data centrally, this greatly reduces the likelihood of misuse or intrusion from third parties.
However, Christophe Fraser and other supporters of the centralised approach have argued that having access to this data and the ability to analyse it is key to better understanding the spread of and fighting Covid-19.
The likelihood of individuals’ data being the subject of misuse by the government (or future governments) is highly unlikely but regardless the perceived threat may have an effect upon the public’s perception of the app, concerns over privacy and potentially reducing public engagement. Some countries which have developed similar apps have seen poor levels of engagement, such as in Singapore where only 20% of the population is using the app. If the UK is to provide a digital solution in this manner to its full potential the government must give the public certain assurances that their data will not be mishandled, this could take the form of stronger legislative protections like the formation of a specialist or a select committee.
There is and has been no greater challenge to public health in the past 75 years than Covid-19 and that digital approaches can help combat the virus by imparting relevant information to the public is to be celebrated. The effectiveness of contact-tracing apps could determine the rate at which health care becomes digitalised for combating infectious diseases in the future. As an industry digital being considered as a go-to solution to challenges of numerous types must be considered as a small, but important positive in this difficult period.