NHSX urged to “follow ethical best practice” in developing coronavirus app

Figures from the tech world ask the NHS' digital arm to protect data while combating COVID-19

NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care have been urged to follow steps that would guarantee that new technologies used to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the UK abide by data protection ethics.

In an open letter written by former Doteveryone CEO Rachel Coldicutt, the NHSX and Matt Hancock MP were asked to take urgent steps to ensure that the public’s trust in the NHS is not undermined by possible data breaches.

The letter outlined and explained steps that include “instituting a culture of working in the open”, “introducing bold emergency governance measures”, and “publishing clear terms and conditions for any new applications” to ensure such data protection and trust could be ensured. 

The open letter was signed by numerous "responsible technologists", including tech journalists, university lecturers, and non-profit organisations.

Although the UK government has not yet announced a launch of an app aimed to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the development was reportedly in the talks at a digital summit hosted at 10 Downing Street on 11 March, during which prime minister Boris Johnson asked the UK tech sector for support in battling COVID-19.

According to the BBC, South Korea, Singapore and Israel have already launched apps capable of assisting the authorities in tracking users who had come into contact with the virus. Taiwan had also established a system which keeps the police informed if a quarantined user does not comply with orders to stay at home.

The Singaporean coronavirus app TraceTogether was set as an example for NHSX by Coldicutt and the signatories of the open letter. The app does not collect data about its users’ location and the only data it stores is its users’ mobile number and a “random anonymised User ID”. 

“These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies,” read the open letter. “Ethical data-driven decision-making requires good governance, transparency and willingness to course correct.

"We ask that the CEO of NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care prioritise putting the best practices outlined here at the heart of how new technologies are delivered by NHSX, for the good of everyone in the United Kingdom.”

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