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Calls for NHS coronavirus app to be ‘scrutinised’ over user tracking claim

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MPs have called for greater scrutiny over an NHS contact-tracing app designed to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

The app, which was announced over the weekend by health secretary Matt Hancock, would enable people who have contracted Covid-19 to anonymously alert other users they have come into contact with.

In a press conference, Hancock said: “All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards and would only be used for NHS care and research.”

He said developers of the app were working with the world’s leading tech companies and experts in clinical safety and digital ethics “so that we can get this right”.

However, the Guardian has revealed that ministers may be given the option to “de-anonymise” users in order to be able to identify them from their smartphones. An internal Government memo seen by the paper suggested that the app could use device IDs “to enable de-anonymisation if ministers judge that to be proportionate at some stage”.

A spokesperson for the NHS’s digital wing, NHSX, denied that more invasive tracking procedures were being planned: “There have never been plans to make use of existing apps and other functions already installed on peoples phones such as Google Maps and neither have there been plans to look to use the device ID of users in any app-based solutions”.

Both shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth and acting Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey have also said that use of such an app must be open to proper scrutiny. It is “vital to have the proper safeguards and transparency when it comes to capturing or mapping people’s data,” Ashworth said.

Davey called for “transparency” and said it bolsters the case for an emergency recall of Parliament.

“Any proposal on the use of mobile phone data or other technology to track people must also be scrutinised properly by MPs before a final decision is made, further strengthening our argument that Parliament should be recalled urgently,” he said.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it would be offering advice to the NHS on ensuring that the new technology protected user privacy.

Chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said, “The right to privacy is one of our most precious rights and it is good to hear the Health Secretary give assurances of handling this information with the highest ethical standards and for the shortest period necessary.

“We will be contacting the NHS to offer our advice and assistance in what they will need to consider.”

Last Friday (April 10), Apple and Google announced they were collaborating on contact-tracing technology which aims to slow the spread of the virus.

It is hoped the move could accelerate usage of apps that aim to get potentially infected individuals into testing or quarantine more quickly and reliably than existing systems in much of the world.

To be effective, the Silicon Valley system would require millions of people to opt in the system, trusting the technology companies’ safeguards, as well as smooth oversight by public health systems.

The two companies said that they started developing the technology two weeks ago to streamline technical differences between Apple’s iPhones and Google’s Android that had stymied the interoperation of some existing contact-tracing apps.

Under the plan, users’ phones with the technology will emit unique Bluetooth signals. Phones within around six feet of each other can record anonymous information about encounters.

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