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Politicians demand new law before rolling out UK's contact-tracing app

A parliamentary committee has outlined significant concerns about the app regarding surveillance and the impact on other human rights.

The UK's attempt to introduce contact tracing is awash with challenges.
Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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A cross-party committee of British politicians has demanded a new law be put in place before the government introduces its contact-tracing app as part of its strategy to control the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK has been working on the app, which tells people when they've come into contact with someone with COVID-19, since March. It began trials on the Isle of Wight earlier this week. The government intended for the app to be rolled out more widely within the next couple of weeks.

But Parliament's Human Rights Committee released a report on Thursday saying it had significant concerns about the app regarding surveillance and its impact on other human rights. The app has not been subject to in-depth parliamentary scrutiny, and should be examined and legislated upon before being released to the general public, it said.

Contact tracing has been hailed by governments around the world as key to controlling the spread of the virus, but introducing technology to monitor the spread of the virus is rife with privacy challenges. There is widespread concern among privacy advocates and human rights organizations that governments could be creating and introducing surveillance technologies that wouldn't later be rolled back when the virus is under control.

The UK faces an extra challenge in that unlike many other European countries, it's chosen not to base its app on Apple and Google's decentralized platform, which is designed to ensure personal data isn't collected or processed in a central repository, minimizing the risk of privacy violations. Instead it's developed its own unique centralized approach, which according to NHS X, the innovation arm of the country's National Health Service, balances privacy with the ability for public health authorities to gain insight into the virus.

The Human Rights Committee's report acknowledged that if effective, the app could help to pave the way out of the UK's lockdown restrictions, which have been in place since March 23, and help prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus. It expressed concern, however, that it had not been subject to the same scrutiny that previous extensions of state powers of surveillance and data collection for terrorism prevention, have been in the past.

"The Government has given assurances about protection of privacy so they should have no objection to those assurances being enshrined in law," said Committee Chair Harriet Harman in a statement. "The contact-tracing app involves unprecedented data gathering. There must be robust legal protection for individuals about what that data will be used for, who will have access to it and how it will be safeguarded from hacking."

In addition to legislation, the app shouldn't be introduced without an independent regulatory body being put in place to oversee the use, effectiveness and privacy protections of the app and any data associated with contact tracing, the report said. It suggested appointing a Contact Tracing Human Rights Commissioner to be responsible for oversight, by dealing with complaints from the public and reporting to parliament.

The Committee also recommended that UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock should undertake a review every 21 days to see how effective the app is in tackling the spread of the virus.

Representatives for NHSX didn't immediately respond to request for comment.