Civil Liberties and the NHS App

The NHS has launched a tracing App for trialling in the Isle of Wight. How does it measure up against the civil liberties checklist that I authored on Lib Dem Voice on 15th April, along with some excellent additions within the comments?

First, the positives:
I urged that opting in should be voluntary. It is. A liberal society works best by consent.
It is good news that this is an NHS App, rather than being owned by the central government or by a private company. Moreover, as the NHS has overwhelming public support, this makes it more likely that there will be significant uptake of the App.

It is to be welcomed that the App uses Bluetooth rather than GPS. It records only our phones’ proximity to other phones, rather than pinpointing our precise locations at the moment of proximity.

It is anonymised, so does not record our identities.

On the face of it, these measures go a fair distance towards protecting our privacy. But there is not enough detail on this yet to be quite sure.

Moving to the areas where we need to be vigilant, and more questions need to be answered: We have a government whose political agenda is to marketise public services. So while this is a NHS App, we need to specify and ringfence the powers given.

There is a lack of clarity as to how information gathered can be shared with other organisations. I have previously suggested that an organisation like the Information Commissioner’s Office could oversee those powers.

As of writing, there is no clarity or instruction on how long the data collected by the App will be held, and when it will be automatically deleted. This is necessary protection which cannot be overlooked.

And finally, there’s nothing yet on publishing the source code of the App. This would build trust so that technical experts can see whether the algorithm actually does what it says on the tin.

* Wera Hobhouse is the Member of Parliament for Bath. She is Liberal Democrat Leader of the House of Commons and the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Justice and Women and Equalities

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12 Comments

  • The app can be removed once it is no longer needed.

  • James Belchamber 6th May '20 - 7:04pm

    “It is anonymised, so does not record our identities.”

    If the rollout is successful then the government will be sitting on a large dataset that could practically be linked to individuals.

    I can foresee police/intelligence requests for the data, for example, if it builds up to a scale that’s useful for the kind of data work the NHS wants to use it for (ie beyond simple proximity alerts).

  • James Belchamber 6th May '20 - 7:06pm

    (Good to see that we’re pushing for opening up the source code, however. Singapore have done it, Matt Hancock promised it – what are they hiding?)

  • I hear that Cambridge Analytica ‘won’ the contract. I equally understand it was NOT put out to contract. If so could this mean at a later date the info obtained could be sold off? Is that what they are hiding?

  • Jenny Barnes 7th May '20 - 7:12am

    That Bluetooth will be a complete battery hog. I don’t want to have to keep charging my phone every few hours.

  • The following links give considerable information about the operation of this app. It does not answer every question – such as how long data is stored – but that might need to change as the understanding increases about the incubation period. The data that is transferred to the central processing is pseudonymised – i.e. cannot be associated with an individual person.
    Chief Executive of NHSX:
    https://www.nhsx.nhs.uk/blogs/digital-contact-tracing-protecting-nhs-and-saving-lives/
    National Cyber Security Centre (read the technical paper to get the full detail):
    https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/report/nhs-covid-19-app-privacy-security-report
    Information Commissioner:
    https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2020/04/statement-nhsx-contact-tracing-app/

  • The Isle of Wight as the choice of testing this app may look good from a geographical point.
    But given the island has (a) a very high proportion of people over 70, and (b) historic levels of low economic performance (one of the poorest areas in the South East), both factors pointing to a reduced use of smart phones. I’m not sure this is a good model for a future nationwide rollout.
    Also will the rollout be UK or England wide?

  • R A Underhill 7th May '20 - 10:10am

    Andy Hyde 7th May ’20 – 9:53am
    Matt Hancock said that the app had been tested at an RAF base.
    He did not say whether any RAF personnel had tested positive or reported positive in the testing of the app. We are simply being asked to deduce that the government are competent and have our best interests at heart. Do we agree?

  • Greetings from the Isle of Wight. I can now report that this testing app does not work on android phones more that 4 years old, also problems with iphones (something to do with them turning themelves off when not in use ?) and of course we have an aging population so many won’t have a smart phone anyway.
    Wen’t for a run on Ryde beach this morning. The town is busier than I have seen it for weeks. Word has got out that Boris is going to loosen the lockdown and people have taken that as their excuse. Somebody, please, hold this government to account for their criminal mishandling of this whole crisis.

  • Chris, I believe that the problem that you mention with I-Phones is that the Bluetooth turns off when the screen shuts down. This is probably because Apple has not given NHSX access to the API that would enable it to control this Bluetooth function.

  • Denis Mollison 7th May '20 - 10:11pm

    I am interested in whether the decision to use the NHS App, rather than alternative apps, or whether to use tracing apps at all, is determined by the science or by politics/private gain. It seems to me corrupt that one of the two political advisers who attended the government crisis advisory committee SAGE, Ben Warner, is brother of (and worked for) the founder of AI company Faculty, Marc Warner.

  • Denis Mollison 7th May '20 - 10:14pm

    PS – I should have made it clear that Faculty “has an existing partnership with NHSX and is now supporting the development and execution of the data response strategy” – see https://www.nhsx.nhs.uk/blogs/power-data-pandemic/

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