The NHS COVID 19 Contact Tracing App: Part 3 The Human Rights Angle

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Everyone will agree that the government needs to do everything it can to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus and to “save lives” (except if your name is Dominic Cummings -Ed). However, there is much less consensus about the what it should do, and this can be seen in the current debate about the proposal to roll out a contact tracing  system and the NHS COVID App. This is the third in a series of blog posts where we examine the COVID App from different perspectives.

On May 7 2020, the  Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (PJCHR) published its report on the proposed contact tracing system and made a series of important recommendations to address its concerns about the compatibility of the scheme with data protection laws and the Human Rights Act 1998. After waiting for two weeks, the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, replied to the Committee rejecting its proposals as “unnecessary!” Let us examine those proposals in detail.

The Human Rights Considerations

Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 makes it unlawful for any public authority (that includes the UK government and the NHSX) to act in a way that is incompatible with a Convention right. Article 8(1)of the ECHR states that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” This is not an absolute right. Article 8(2) provides that an interference with the right to privacy may be justified if it:

is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

However, the government also has an obligation to protect the “right to life” enshrined in Article 2 of the ECHR. This means that if the NHS COVID App really can prevent the spread of the virus and save lives, then this is going to a major consideration in deciding whether the interference with Article 8 is necessary and proportionate.

On 7 May the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights  (PJCHR) published a Report on the NHS COVID App and this provides a very detailed assessment of some of the human rights implications of the “centralised” approach that the NHS has proposed. The overall conclusion of the report is that if the app is effective it could help pave the way out of current lockdown restrictions and help to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. However, it also concludes that the app, in its current form, raises “significant concerns regarding surveillance and the impact on other human rights which must be addressed first.”

How will the COVID App interfere with the right to privacy?

At first glance it would appear that the COVID App does not involve the transfer of any personal data. As explained in the first blog in this series, app user will be given a unique ID which will be made up of a set of random numbers and the first half of a person’s post code. The NHS web site suggests that this ‘anonymises’ the information. However, as the Parliamentary Report notes, there are parts of England where less than 10,000 people live in a post code area and as little as 3 or 4 “bits” of other information could be enough to identify individuals. The report also notes that relying upon people self-reporting alone (without requiring conformation that a person has tested positive for COVID 19) may carry the risks of false alerts thereby impacting on other people’s rights if they have to self-isolate unnecessarily.

Necessary interference?

An interference with a person’s right to privacy under ECHR Article 8 may be justified under Article 8(2) if it is “in accordance with the law” and is “necessary” for the protection of “health” (see above).

To be in accordance with the law, the app must meet the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018 “http://www. legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/12/contents” (DPA). However, as noted below, the PJCHR believes that the “current data protection framework is contained in a number of different documents and it is nearly impossible for the public to understand what it means for their data which may be collected by the digital contact tracing system”. The Committee’s recommendations in relation to this are considered below.

The remaining  human rights consideration is whether the interference with peoples’ private lives is “necessary”. The answer to this depends on whether the use of the app will contribute to reducing the spread of COVID 19 and whether it will save lives.
This in turn depends on whether the app works and on the uptake of the app.

Although it was reported that uptake of the app in the Isle of Wight has exceeded 50% of the population, this falls short of the 60% that the government had previously suggested was necessary for the app to be effective. It is also debatable whether it necessarily follows that the uptake will be the same on the mainland. If the App is not capable of achieving its objective of preventing the spread of the virus, then the interference with peoples’ privacy rights will not be proportionate and will not fulfil the requirement of necessity in Article 8(2).

Although many people will probably download the app without thinking about privacy issues (how often do any of us download apps without checking Privacy Notices?), many others may have some real privacy concerns, particularly after the recent media debates. This has not been helped by reports that Serco (the company contracted to train call centre staff for the contact tracing scheme) has accidentally shared the email addresses of 300 contact tracers. Or by the fact that in other parts of the world there is growing concern about the privacy issues related to the use of contact tracing apps. Uptake of the app may be adversely affected if people lack confidence in the way in which data is being processed and why, and in the light of above they may have concerns about data security.

Consequently, the PJCHR’s report includes a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that “robust privacy protections” are put in place as these are key to ensuring the effectiveness of the app .

Central to their recommendations was a proposal that the government introduce legislation to provide legal certainty about how personal data will be processed by the COVID App. Although individuals’ data protection rights are protected by the GDPR and DPA 2018 the Committee believes that it is “nearly impossible” for the public to understand what will happen to their data and also that it is necessary to turn government assurances about privacy into statutory obligations. The PJCHR sent a copy of their draft Bill to Secretary of State, Matt Hancock. However, on 21 May Matt Hancock rejected that proposal on the basis that the existing law provides “the necessary powers, duties and protections” and that participation in contact tracing and use of the app is voluntary.
In contrast the Australian government has passed additional new privacy protection legislation specifically aimed at the collection, use and disclosure of its COVID safe app data.

The Committee’s other recommendations are:

  1. The appointment of a Digital Contact Tracing Human Rights Commissioner to oversee the use, effectiveness and privacy protections of the app and any data associated with digital contact tracing. It calls for the Commissioner to have the same powers as the Information Commissioner. It would appear that Matt Hancock has also rejected this proposal on the basis that there is already sufficient governance in place.
  2. Particular safeguards for children under 18 to monitor children’s use, ensure against misuse and allow for interviews with parents where appropriate. It is noticeable that the Committee has set the age at 18.
  3. The app’s contribution to reducing the severity of the lockdown and to helping to prevent the spread of COVID 19 must be demonstrated and improved at regular intervals for the collection of the data to be reasonable. Therefore the Secretary of State for Health must review the operation of the app on a three weekly basis and must report to Parliament every three weeks.
  4. Transparency. In the second of this series of blog posts, we noted some of the issues relating to the publication of the Data Protection Impact Assessment. The PJCHR calls for this to be made public as it is updated.
  5. Time limited. The data associated with the contact tracing app must be permanently deleted when it is no longer required and may not be kept beyond the duration of the health emergency. However these terms may be open to some interpretation.

Matt Hancock has written that he will respond to these other issues “in due course”.
It is unclear what this means, but it does not suggest any immediate response.

The Draft Bill

The PJCHR’s draft bill (rejected by Matt Hancock) proposed a number of important provisions, some of which are set out below.

The Bill specifically limited the purpose of the COVID App to:

  1. Protecting the health of individuals who are or may become infected with Coronavirus; and
  2. Preventing or controlling the spread of Coronavirus (a) preventing the spread of Coronavirus.

Additionally it contained provisions  that prohibited the use of centrally held data without specific statutory authorisation; limited the amount of time that data could be held on a smart phone to 28 days followed by automatic deletion unless a person has notified that they have COVID 19 or suspected COVID 19. It also prohibited “data reconstruction” in relation to any centrally held data. The fact that the Bill includes this, seems to suggest an implicit recognition that the Unique IDs are not truly anonymous.

The ‘status’ of the NHS COVID App keeps changing and it still remains to be seen when (and if) it will be rolled out. But the Northern Ireland Assembly has already announced it will be working with the Irish government to produce a coordinated response based on a  decentralised model.  It is reported to be doing this because of the difficulties and uncertainties surrounding the app, and the human rights issues arising from a centralised app.

This and other GDPR developments will be covered in our new online GDPR update workshop. Our  next online   GDPR Practitioner Certificate  course is  fully booked. We have  1 place left   on the course starting on 11th  June. 

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Author: actnowtraining

Act Now Training is Europe’s leading provider of information governance training with clients including government organisations, local authorities, multi national corporations, financial institutions and corporate law firms. Our associates have decades of information governance experience. We pride ourselves on delivering high quality training that is practical and makes the complex simple. Our extensive programme ranges from short webinars and one day workshops through to higher level practitioner certificate courses delivered online or in the classroom.

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