UK data think-tanks clash over the use of contact-tracing apps

Government warned not to exploit pandemic to expand "snooping regime with minimal scrutiny"

Contact-tracing apps have sparked a major debate in the UK about the collection of personal data and the flexibility of privacy protection laws.

While some have argued that relaxing data regulations can help governments to track the spread of the coronavirus when lockdowns are lifted, critics are suggesting this could lead to 'mission creep', where surveillance powers are not dialled back once the crisis eases. 

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), founded by the former prime minister, has released a report that suggests an increase in state surveillance to track the spread of COVID-19 is a "price worth paying".

The report calls on policymakers to adopt privacy-focused options and recommends open and transparent operations.

"The price of this escape route is an unprecedented increase in digital surveillance," the report claims. "In normal times, the degree of monitoring and state intervention we are talking about here would be out of the question in liberal democracies. But these are not normal times, and the alternatives are even more unpalatable."

The UK's government is already working on a tracking app, in partnership with Apple and Google, that will allow users to declare whether they have COVID-19 symptoms. The software will be able to determine whether users have recently been in touch with anybody who has self-diagnosed and will send out a relevant alert to their device.

However, a number of human rights groups have spoken out about the government's plan, such as Article 19, which has argued that the already expansive Investigatory Powers Act could be widened further under the guise of public interest. Under this law, internet service providers and mobile phone companies are compelled to collect data about their customer's web browsing, email and phone activity, and store this data for 12 months.

"Government proposals to increase the number of public bodies that can access this data is the kind of mission creep that Article 19 warned about when the Investigatory Powers Act was passed in 2016," said Sarah Clarke, Article 19's head of Europe and Central Asia.

"The UK must not use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to expand its snooping regime with minimal scrutiny."

Related Resource

Don’t just collect data, innovate with it.

Removing the barriers to the experience economy

Download now

In the middle of the debate is the UK's Information Commissioner's Office, which suggested last month that "data protection law can work flexibly to protect lives and data".

"We will be reviewing the technical details and engaging with Google and Apple as their work continues to ensure privacy issues are considered, while also taking into account the compelling public interest in the current emergency."

Featured Resources

Managing security risk and compliance in a challenging landscape

How key technology partners grow with your organisation

Download now

Evaluate your order-to-cash process

15 recommended metrics to benchmark your O2C operations

Download now

AI 360: Hold, fold, or double down?

How AI can benefit your business

Download now

Getting started with Azure Red Hat OpenShift

A developer’s guide to improving application building and deployment capabilities

Download now

Most Popular

Citrix buys Slack competitor Wrike in record $2.25bn deal
collaboration

Citrix buys Slack competitor Wrike in record $2.25bn deal

19 Jan 2021
How to recover deleted emails in Gmail
email delivery

How to recover deleted emails in Gmail

6 Jan 2021
SolarWinds hackers hit Malwarebytes through Microsoft exploit
hacking

SolarWinds hackers hit Malwarebytes through Microsoft exploit

20 Jan 2021