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."

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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."

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