#Privacy: UK health chiefs urged to protect people’s privacy

UK researchers have launched an app to help track the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Covid Symptom Tracker app, already downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, allows users to track the symptoms of COVID-19 and help prevent the spread of it. 

However, an open letter by “responsible technologists” asks both the NHSX leadership and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure new technologies, used in the fight against the coronavirus, follow ethical best practices. 

“The imperative to innovate quickly, and the immense pressure being placed on teams within the NHS and NHSX to deliver at speed must not lead to ethical corners being cut that will undermine trust in the NHS,” the letter reads. 

Israel, South Korea and Singapore are among few countries that have deployed apps which allow authorities to track users who have contracted the virus, or those who have come to contact with the virus. 

The letter calls on Health Secretary Matt Hancock and NHSX’s leaders to firstly be more open, and provide clear regular updates about projects being undertaken and “the publication of machine readable data and models – to build trust and minimise speculation.”

Secondly, to set up an expert governance panel involving both patient and public participation to ensure that privacy rights are upheld. 

Thirdly, the letter also requests those to publish clear terms and conditions for any new applications, such as Singapore’s government app TraceTogether.

The TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth to identify when users are within two metres of another person. The data is then stored in an encrypted form on each person’s phone, to which they must give their consent before Singapore’s Ministry of Health uploads the data for contact-tracing. 

The letter adds “It is not yet clear how data will be collected, or used, within the legal framework. Nor what technical safeguards will be used. We are also concerned that data collected to fight Coronavirus could be stored indefinitely or for a disproportionate amount of time, or will be used for unrelated purposes”

The letter concludes: “these are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies.”

Felix Marx, CEO at Trūata commented:Many government agencies are considering working with Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to analyse the location data of their citizens to help them in the fight against the pandemic. Such mobile user location data, used at a generalized level, can provide helpful safety-generating insights on how people, in general, are shopping, visiting healthcare facilities, whether they are abiding specific lockdown restrictions, and traffic flows in and out of towns and cities. There is clearly a societal need and purpose for utilising this data for the greater good.

“However, even in these exceptional times, we must be cognizant of the protection of the personal data of the data subjects. Governments should attempt to handle this data in a balanced way that manages both the safety and privacy concerns of their citizens. Furthermore, issues such as transparency cannot be overlooked even in these most challenging circumstances. Questions that need to be considered include what type of personal data is being shared, for what purposes and for how long?

“Governments must also ask themselves whether appropriate safeguards and technologies are being applied so that they are not, in using that data to benefit society, failing to protect the rights of the individuals behind that data. To that end, applying the highest standards of anonymization to this data can ensure that we are protecting the privacy of the individual while enabling insights to be generated that will benefit us all. We are living in unprecedented times. And, at this moment of great uncertainty, we must recognise that we all play a role in addressing the global challenge as quickly and efficiently – but also as responsibly – as possible.”


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