As the pandemic drives us physically apart, technology is bringing us together. In a matter of weeks, whole sections of our workforce have moved online. Broadcasters are delivering an incredible range of informative, educational and entertaining content, from their presenters’ homes. Parliament has gone digital, moving from the 17th century to the 21st century in three weeks. Schools and supermarkets are reconfiguring for online delivery. We play, work, shop and learn online. The Covid-19 virus has caused a mass flight to the internet and some of the few winners will be the online platforms and tech companies who quickly adapt to these crisis times. A few months ago talk was of tech’s “trust gap” – now it is seen as our saviour.
Nowhere is this more apparent than contact tracing. Almost as quickly as the virus spread so did tech “solutions”. Over the last few weeks, secretary of state for health, Matt Hancock – who launched himself as an app when culture secretary – has made numerous references to a “smart app” under development by NHSX, the innovation arm of the NHS.
Contact tracing apps across the world can be divided into two – centralised, high data collection and low privacy; or distributed, collecting a little data with high privacy. Google and Apple have developed a shared platform which supports the latter.
Unfortunately, we have almost no information about the approach the NHSX app is taking. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has been asked to provide “ethical” oversight but we don’t know what that involves. There are lots of rumours: It will scale to 30 million users. Or less. It will use the high-privacy “Gapple” platform. Or it won’t. It will mutate into a biometric passport. Or not.
Under GDPR legislation – which still applies in the UK – health apps are identified as being highly sensitive, and yet no data privacy assessment has been published. In this moment of national crisis it is right that we use every means at our disposal to ensure we save as many lives as possible. But it needs to be done transparently and openly.
Tech alone is not the answer
Twenty years in tech and 10 years in Parliament have taught me that whatever the problem, technology alone is not the answer. Recently reports from the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Institute for Global Change made this point strongly.
Any smart app is but one small part of a smart exit from lockdown. It must be integrated with the science, process and logistics of mass testing. An army of contract tracers to find the next wave of infections are likely to be part of the solution. They need to be recruited and trained, which takes time.
And this really matters. Trust in technology and science is absolutely essential for getting us through the next few months. The app is being built at speed but these questions are ones the team must be considering – why can’t we hear about that? And if, as seems likely, an app leads to some kind of immunity identification, we need to know it is based on solid principles – that it doesn’t exacerbate existing digital divides or surveillance worries.
I am glad that Google and Apple have integrated privacy into their platform but we really should not be dependent on them as either our conscience or our quality control. We need minimum commitments and protections – a group of concerned academics have drafted a bill which sets out what they might be. At the very least, the principle that we can control our own data, determine what happens to it and delete it at any time, must be enshrined.
The Covid-19 outbreak has accelerated our move online without closing the digital divide. It’s given a huge boost to the profits of Big Tech at a time when governments around the world were considering how to rein it in. And it has made the state a bigger part of all of our lives.
The last thing we need is to give people a choice between a Big Brother on their phone or months more inside. We must set out the right principles now – openness, transparency, proportionality, empowering people rather than technology, businesses or governments. The way in which we respond to the coronavirus will shape the nature of our longer-term digital future and become the basis on which we rebuild our social and economic lives. Let’s get it right.