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Company behind UK’s Covid-19 tracing app leaks 296 emails, killing trust in both the government & the scandal-riddled contractor

Chris Sweeney
Chris Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Company behind UK’s Covid-19 tracing app leaks 296 emails, killing trust in both the government & the scandal-riddled contractor
Serco, the company behind the UK’s upcoming Covid-19 tracing app, has admitted to a data breach that leaked details of nearly 300 people. But how did it get the government contract in the first place, given its track record?

The British government has been trying to mesmerise the public, like a snake charmer does a king cobra, with its contact tracing app.

Our supposed world-power nation, with a relatively small population, has performed dismally in this Covid-19 crisis so far, with the death toll now possibly topping 55,000. But the app was going to solve everything.

It had been trialed on the Isle of Wight and everything was set to go live imminently, even though it is already behind schedule.

The only bump in the road was the issue of privacy.

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What could go wrong?

The British government opted to pursue a methodology of storing everyone's data centrally, as opposed to the alternative of letting individual phones store the data. That method helps authorities obtain a better overview of the pandemic, but with 60 percent of the population required to download the app for it to work, the question of privacy loomed large.

There has been a litany of massive data breaches in recent years – so with people’s lives on the line, this app had to be bulletproof not only to stop the ravaging pandemic but also redeem a beleaguered government's reputation.

At this point enter Serco, a vast company which has a hand in many pies. It jumped in to secure the contract to train, recruit and manage contact tracers, of course whilst maintaining the privacy of everyone involved.

But at this early stage, it has been forced into a humiliating apology after it shared the email addresses of 296 tracers by accident.

Serco has fallen at the first hurdle, jeopardising the success of the app that so many hopes have been pinned on. If it can't even keep its own people's data secure, how is it going to keep everyone else's? If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny.

If someone were to give a straight-faced answer to the question of “what can go wrong” with a massive surveillance project, that answer would be THIS.

Shady track record

The choice of Serco to handle this project is adding insult to injury.

The company was fined £19.2 million last summer for fraud and false accounting over the Ministry of Justice's electronic tagging service for released prisoners – plus the £70 million they paid in compensation. Two of their former executives were also criminally charged over the affair.

The Panama Papers leak unearthed more dirt on Serco’s track record of incompetence. Offshore law firm Appleby wanted nothing to do with them because “it has a history of problems, failures, fatal errors and overcharging.” 

Serco reached out to Appleby to establish a holding company in Mauritius to buy 49 percent of a firm in Abu Dhabi. The lawyers were suspicious of the motivations and reckoned it was to escape tax, so walked away. To back up their decision, they referenced allegations against Serco which included breaching responsibilities of the handling of nuclear waste, manipulating results to show it met NHS targets, covering up sexual abuse of immigrants, plus horrendous reports from prisons it ran in New Zealand and Australia.

With all this on the record, plus other rumours that are circulating in the business community, why on earth were these opportunists even allowed to be in the reckoning to handle a matter of national importance and trust?

That's where it becomes a case of who you know, not what you know.

All connected

Serco's CEO is Rupert Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill and brother of Conservative MP, Nicholas. Despite Serco's claims they have turned over a new leaf, Rupert was trapped in a web of lies only a few weeks ago, that was conveniently afforded minimal coverage by the mainstream media.

He was caught tweeting aboard a sleeper train from London to Scotland – another much criticised service operated by Serco.

The company's default arrogance kicked in as their media arm’s statement said: “He fiercely defends his decision to show solidarity with front-line workers and believes that hiding at home… is not an appropriate style of leadership.”

Those words might have worked, if soon after Soames had not been photographed three hours from Scotland's northern city Inverness, on a boat near the mouth of Loch Nevis. It emerged, he has a country estate there, where he employs three staff.

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Responding to the new evidence, he told the Scotsman: “The purpose of the visit, which was in my private time, was to conduct essential job interviews with candidates for the vacant position of resident manager, which is a vital role in such a remote community.”

Wasn't this the same crime that forced Scotland's Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood to walk the plank and resign? The excuse of conducting interviews for a non-key worker role is blatantly not valid.

The Scottish government slammed Soames’ trip, even before it heard about the naval detour to his estate while the Conservatives in London remained silent.

Is it too much of a leap to bring up the fact that his brother is part of the Conservatives’ inner circle, and that Boris Johnson is a fervent admirer of his grandfather, having even written a book titled, ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’?

Public life relies on the impression of things being done fairly and in the absence of bias. Serco getting the contract to track and trace citizens screams of anything but – and then it botches basic privacy protection.

Britain is lurching from one scandal to another – and yet again, the ordinary person has to take it square on the chin. It's the next stage of a nightmare that doesn't seem to ever end.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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