The NHS Track and Trace app is here to stay, what should Liberals say?

The NHS Track and Trace app is here to stay. Even if Covid-19 were to disappear from the planet tomorrow, there is no turning back from this point; track and trace apps will become a permanent fixture of the health service. And now that we know what an app should be able to do, why would we rely on one for Covid-19? If it helps to save lives, then surely an app could help us to guard against annual winter flu pandemics; what about chickenpox and a whole host of other infectious diseases? Thinking ahead, it is not inconceivable to imagine that we will have all be required to have a permanent mobile app, which can be used to track our exposure to deadly diseases, but also hold our personal medical records.

Over 12 million people have downloaded the app already, a number that is likely to rise. This represents a significant upwards shift in the technological responsibilities of the state. Just as the state once needed to build a Navy and then an Airforce to save us from invasion, today we need a fully-functioning health app to save us from a deadly pandemic. Legitimate questions can be asked of how well it does so. Questioning the government’s ability to do so is not the purpose of this article – that’s a separate argument – the point is that questioning the rollout of an essential service is now a requirement for a party of opposition. We need to think intelligently about how best to do so.

The likely longevity of the app presents a fresh challenge for Liberals: how do we strike a balance between protecting civil liberties, yet holding the government to account for delivering a new technological service? Unless we want to sound like Luddites, we cannot oppose the rollout of the app on the basis that the state should not have access to our data. In the context of saving lives during a pandemic, no way would work: we need the app to protect us, and it needs our personal data to do so. Neither will this be the last technological leap in the capacity of the state.

Liberals should focus on safeguarding the UK’s existing data protection legislation, mainly to make sure that it is not watered down after the transition period ends. We should focus on ensuring that the regulator responsible for enforcing those rights has sufficient funding to do so. We should call for the government to advance and harden the upcoming legislation on Online Harms, rather than diluting it in an attempt to appease the tech industry.

Without wanting to sound glib, the general position we should fashion on technological progress is of how tech can benefit humanity. This would make clear that we will put the interests of citizens before business, but positively encourage innovation that improves the lives of the people we wish to serve (the app being a prime example). Building a narrative of how technology can be used to protect and empower citizens will enable the Liberal Democrats to define ourselves by asking for something, rather than reacting to the government. The Labour party doesn’t seem to be hurrying to adopt this position, so it’s territory we can own outright. The Track and Trace app won’t be the last technological leap in the provision of government services, let’s start calling for the next one.

* David is the former Parliamentary Candidate for North Dorset. He helped write our party's response to the government's National Data Strategy and has recently moved back to his hometown, Cheltenham.

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  • One question – is interpretation of the 12 million figure correct? My impression is that the government is saying the Covid app has been downloaded 12 million times – which is not the same as it being on 12 million phones. Some users will have downloaded it to phones on which it won’t work; others will have downloaded it a few times to try to make it work.
    One comment – for government to use technology to provide services will require a step change in government’s tech competence.

  • questions! An app for this, an app for that .Will adverts be shown or guide you to a product that will ‘cure’ you?
    Who will be holding the’ private medical details of the person?he individual or a govnt database or maybe the NHS
    Remember apps are a consumer thing and open for some one to sell something. Is it a way to sideline the NHS for the Tories do want to get rid of it.

  • John Marriott 30th Sep '20 - 6:30pm

    You need a relatively modern mobile phone to make it work, apparently. Thank goodness that mine won’t take it, although I noticed today when my wife and I had a coffee at Starbucks they asked for our phone number.

  • Simon McGrath 30th Sep '20 - 6:51pm

    People boasting about not using it are as irresponsible as those who refuse to wear a mask

  • Peter Davies 30th Sep '20 - 7:41pm

    The current direction of government is certainly authoritarian and they tried to build the app that some commenters fear. I would not have downloaded that one. The current app is not that one. Your tracking data is not available to government or Starbucks or any of the people who get to see your data for manual track-and-trace. The technology may not be perfect. I’m sure GCHQ could hack it if I was that interesting but there is far less chance of your data being exposed to someone really worrying (like a scammer or an ex) than with a manual system half as effective.

  • David Chadwick 30th Sep '20 - 8:11pm

    Guy, that’s spot on. If we accept that this is now a required public service then we can start to think and talk about the best way of delivering digital public services. That earns us more credibility than opposing it. I would imagine that there is a close correlation between downloads and users but that figure hasn’t been revealed.

    Agreed Peter, we should be much more concerned with private sector practices (i.e. Cambridge Analytica) than the NHS app that has been launched in our best interests.

  • Barry Lofty 30th Sep '20 - 8:59pm

    Is the government going to supply me with an up to date I phone or smart phone so my wife and I can download this life saving app. Can’t wait to walk around with this phone in my hand 24 hours a day.

  • Every day each of us will be watched by, on average, 70 CCTV cameras. When I was a councillor I was struck by how often residents demanded that cameras should be installed because they made them feel safer. Surveillance is a fact of life already.
    I am pleased that we now have an app which protects us. Its design means that my personal data is not captured, although, tbh I’m not entirely sure how much is stored.

  • David Chadwick 1st Oct '20 - 9:33am

    The app does process personal data. Data protection legislation defines personal data is “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural human being”.

    This app, or other track-and-trace apps, are likely to become a permanent government service. As a party, this presents an opportunity to think creatively about how to respond, there is political space for us to carve out a niche for ourselves as the party that wants to deliver better public services by adopting best practices from digital innovation. For instance, this might mean creating a new government department responsible for delivering logistics and affairs, similar to the one that was created by FDR.

  • Daniel Walker 1st Oct '20 - 11:12am

    @Barry Lofty “Is the government going to supply me with an up to date I phone or smart phone so my wife and I can download this life saving app. Can’t wait to walk around with this phone in my hand 24 hours a day.

    While it won’t work for everyone (lack of a recent-ish phone being the main reason) it will work for the majority of the population who do, in theory leaving more staff available to do track and trace on the rest.

    And you don’t need to have it “in your hand” 24hrs a day; in your pocket is fine.

  • David Garlick 1st Oct '20 - 11:13am

    As someone who enjoys the benefits of modern connectivity I do worry about data security, mission creep and the thin end of the wedge. Disconnection when safe and responsible to do so seems the only way forward at present.

  • David Chadwick 1st Oct '20 - 11:42am

    Mary, CCTV is an intriguing point. The human footage that CCTV captures can be considered personal data. Facial Recognition is a hotly-contested service that many corporations are moving away from providing, which i welcome because the technology rarely works properly, is intrusive and inhumane. It will be interesting to see if concerns about facial recognition bubble up to become objections about CCTV, as in reality they perform similar tasks.

  • Barry Lofty 1st Oct '20 - 5:27pm

    Daniel Walker: Thanks for the info which is,seriously, reassuring and glad I will be able to keep both hands free!

  • Barry Lofty 2nd Oct '20 - 6:21pm

    App or no app I seriously mistrust this governments advice on anything and in particular their attitude towards the more vulnerable in our society and as my wife and I fall into that category it is really depressing, thank goodness for our three children and nine grandchildren, but we do miss their hugs and kisses although realising there are so many worse off!

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