The UK Transport Secretary has announced plans to launch an ‘exciting’ new NHS smartphone app for coronavirus tracking. Grant Shapps revealed the plan, saying that it could mean that stringent social distancing rules would be loosened.
The NHS app works by sending an alert to users if they come into close contact with someone “who is later diagnosed with having coronavirus.” Shapps went on to say that this could be a very effective method for preventing a second wave of viral infections.
However, critics of the technology have been quick to make their concerns known. While politicians continue to fight for solutions to the pandemic crisis, as many as 30 different tracing systems are being developed worldwide, with both governments and health authorities racing to launch the technology. These ‘contact tracing’ apps have been suggested as a way to help quickly restart local economies.
Alex Gladstein, the chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation, has said called the system a “slippery slope”, and went on to say that “COVID-19 is another sea change moment like 9/11 was. You’re seeing a normalisation of surveillance.”
Gladstein is not the only critic. The NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden said that governments are responding to the virus by “building an architecture of oppression.” However, the UK transport secretary is convinced that this is the right step forward and added that the app will be rolled out to the general population if tests on the Isle of Wight prove successful.
Shapps said, “The idea is we will encourage as many people to take this up as possible. It is going to be a huge national effort. We need for this to work, 50% to 60% of people to be using this app.” In order to ease concerns, he stated that using the app is “the best possible way to help the NHS”. Addressing privacy worries, the app is intended to be what Shapps calls “completely confidential.”
It has also been suggested that should the NHS app prove successful that visitors to the UK will have to download the resource to their phones before being permitted to come into the country.
Labour’s shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, has said that compulsory downloading of the app would not be possible. While saying that “There has to be a strategy for how we can ensure there is a very large take-up of this app, I think it’s obvious that we should need to do that,” he also said that “Not everybody has a smartphone in the first place to which you could download the app.” He also warned that there would be obvious privacy and security concerns if downloading the testing app became mandatory.
The UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, has also discussed the privacy worries, saying, “All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research, and we won’t hold it any longer than it’s needed. And as part of our commitment to transparency, we’ll be publishing the source code too.”
Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of The Equality and Human Rights Commission, said, “We support the use of technology to save lives during the pandemic. At the same time, it must have the appropriate safeguards in place to protect people’s privacy and data.”