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Contact-tracing app will be ‘key part’ of UK government’s Covid-19 ‘surveillance programme’ – Johnson spokesman

Contact-tracing app will be ‘key part’ of UK government’s Covid-19 ‘surveillance programme’ – Johnson spokesman
The controversial NHS contact-tracing app will be a “key part” of the British government’s Covid-19 “surveillance programme” going forward, a spokesman for PM Boris Johnson has confirmed.

The app, which has been designed to notify people if they were in close contact with a person who tested positive for the coronavirus, could be available within weeks – but privacy campaigners have warned that it could see the public “coerced” into sharing personal data about their movements. 

Johnson’s spokesman said the primary focus while waiting for the app to be ready is ensuring continued social distancing in order to fulfil the “five tests” to be met before lockdown measures can be eased. Those tests include falling deaths and falling infection rates.

His comments follow an exchange in the House of Commons on Tuesday over legislation setting out the legal basis for processing personal data by the app. Shadow deputy leader of the House, Afzal Khan, said that while the app has an “important role to play,” legislation should ensure that it stores data in a decentralized manner.

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Solicitor General Michael Ellis QC assured Khan that the app will be “voluntary participation only” and there will be “no private identifiable information on it.” Furthermore, the whole process will be “data protection compliant and there will be an ethical advisory board monitoring it,” he said.

Internet law professor Lilian Edwards told MPs on Tuesday, however, that there was a “precedent of other pandemics leading to a mass land grab in extensive state surveillance.”

Several EU countries have also been developing contact-tracing apps, with Brussels saying earlier this month that it wanted to take a “common approach” to the use of digital technologies and data. 

A debate has raged in Europe in recent weeks over whether to use centralized or decentralized solutions for the apps. While a decentralized approach would see data stored on the user’s own phone, a centralized infrastructure would see data sent to a central database run by public authorities, which civil liberties groups say risks evolving into state surveillance.

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German authorities said they would adopt a decentralized solution last week, U-turning on previous plans to back what's known as the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (Pepp-PT) protocol developed by European institutions. Berlin will now support decentralized solutions supported by Apple and Google instead, which leaves the gathered data on devices controlled by US tech corporations, presenting its own security concerns.

The UK, meanwhile, has opted for a centralized model and it’s been reported that experts from GCHQs National Cyber Security Centre are advising on the project. France has also been advocating a centralized app, prompting hundreds of the country's computer security experts to sign an open letter asking the government to reconsider due to concerns around privacy and individual freedoms.

Johnson's spokesman said the government would set out more details regarding the British app as soon as it could.

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