The first three blog posts in this series have raised many issues about the proposed NHS COVID19 Contact Tracing App (COVID App) including the incomplete DPIA and lack of human rights compliance. In this final post we discuss concerns about how long the data collected by the app will be held and what it will be used for.
From the DPIA and NHSX communications it appears that the purpose of the COVID App is not just to be part of a contact tracing alert system. The app’s Privacy Notice states:
“The information you provide, (and which will not identify you), may also be used for different purposes that are not directly related to your health and care. These include:
- Research into coronavirus
- Planning of services/actions in response to coronavirus
- Monitoring the progress and development of coronavirus
Any information provided by you and collected about you will not be used for any purpose that is not highlighted above.”
Article 89 of the GDPR allows Data Controllers to process personal data for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes, subject to appropriate safeguards set out in Section 19 of the Data Protection Act 2018.
NHSX has said that one of the “appropriate safeguards” to be put in place is anonymisation or de-identification of the users’ data; but only if research purposes can be achieved without the use of personal data. However, even anonymised data can be pieced back together to identify individuals especially where other datasets are matched.
The Open Rights Group says:
“Claims such as ‘The App is designed to preserve the anonymity of those who use it’ are inherently misleading, yet the term has been heavily relied upon by the authors of the DPIA. On top of that, many statements leave ambiguities…”
There are also legitimate concerns about “function creep”. What exactly does “research into coronavirus” mean? Matthew Gould, the chief executive of NHSX, told MPs the app will evolve over time:
“We need to level with the public about the fact that when we launch it, it will not be perfect and that, as our understanding of the virus develops, so will the app. We will add features and develop the way it works.”
Whilst speaking to the Science and Technology Committee, Gould stated that “We’ve been clear the data will only ever be used for the NHS.” This does not rule out the possibility of private companies getting this data as NHS Data Processors.
Privacy campaigners are also concerned about the length of time the personal data collected by the app will be held; for both contacts and for people who have coronavirus. The DPIA and Privacy Notice does not specify a data retention period:
“In accordance with the law, personal data will not be kept for longer than is necessary. The exact retention period for data that may be processed relating to COVID-19 for public health reasons has yet to be set (owing to the uncertain nature of COVID-19 and the impact that it may have on the public).
In light of this, we will ensure that the necessity to retain the data will be routinely reviewed by an independent authority (at least every 6 months).”
So, at the time of writing, COVID App users have no idea how long their data will be kept for, nor exactly what for, nor which authority will review it “every six months.” Interestingly the information collected by the wider NHS Test and Trace programme is going to be kept by Public Health England for 20 years. Who is to say this will not be the case for COVID App users’ data?
Interestingly, none of the 15 risks listed in the original DPIA relating to the COVID App trial (see the second blog in this series) include keeping data for longer than necessary or the lawful basis for retaining it past the pandemic, or what it could be used for in future if more personal data is collected in updated versions of the app. As discussed in the third blog in this series, the Joint Human Rights Committee drafted a Bill which required defined purposes and deletion of all of the data at end of the pandemic. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, quickly rejected this Bill.
The woolly phrase “personal data will not be kept for longer than is necessary” and the fact NHSX admit that the COVID App will evolve in future and may collect more data, gives the Government wriggle room to retain the COVID App users’ data indefinitely and use it for other purposes. Could it be used as part of a government surveillance programme? Both India and China have made downloading their contact tracing app a legal requirement raising concerns of high tech social control.
To use the App or not?
Would we download the COVID App app in its current form? All four blogs in this series show that we are not convinced that it is privacy or data protection compliant. Furthermore, there are worries about the wider NHS’s coronavirus test-and-trace programme. The speed at which it has been set up, concerns raised by people working in it and the fact that no DPIA has been done further undermines confidence in the whole set up. Yesterday we learnt that the Open Rights Group is to challenge the government over amount of data collected and retained by the programme.
Having said all that, we leave it up to readers to decide whether to use the app.
Some privacy experts have been more forthcoming with their views. Phil Booth of @medConfidential calls the Test and Trace programme a “mass data grab” and Paul Bernal, Associate Professor in Law at the University of East Anglia, writes that the Government’s approach – based on secrecy, exceptionalism and deception – means our civic duty may well be to resist the programme actively. Finally if you need a third opinion, Jennifer Arcuri, CEO of Hacker House, has said she would not download the app because “there is no guarantee it’s 100 percent secure or the data is going to be kept secure.” Over to you dear readers!
Will you be downloading the app? Let us know in the comments section below.
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. A few places left on the course starting on 2nd July.