ICO greenlights NHSX’ new contact tracing app

The Information Commissioner’s Office has greenlighted NHSX’ new contact tracing app, stating that it fulfils standards of transparency and governance and that it will continue to offer support to NHSX during the app’s entire lifecycle.

Earlier this week, NHSX launched its new contact tracing app, stating that the application will automate the process of contact tracing and will reduce the transmission of the coronavirus by alerting people who may have been exposed so they can take action to protect themselves.

“The app will be part of a wider approach that will involve contact tracing and testing. We are working hard to make sure that all these elements are properly linked up, to make it as seamless as possible and to ensure the app complements more traditional measures that, working together, can protect vulnerable groups and those who cannot or do not want to access digital tools.

“Once the app is installed it will start logging the distance between phones nearby that also have the app installed using Bluetooth Low Energy. If anyone gets symptoms of COVID-19, this app will help individuals to notify NHS and trigger anonymous alert to those other app users with whom the affected individual came in contact over the previous few days.

“In future releases of the app, people will be able to choose to provide the NHS with extra information about themselves to help us identify hotspots and trends. Those of us who agree to provide this extra information will be playing a key role in providing additional information about the spread of COVID-19 that will contribute towards protecting the health of others and getting the country back to normal in a controlled way, as restrictions ease,” said Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX.

NHSX' contact tracing app respects data privacy principles, says ICO

Commenting on privacy and security aspects of the new contact tracing app, the Information Commissioner's Office issued a statement today that read: “People must have trust and confidence in the way personal data is used to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The ICO also recognises the vital role that data can play in tracking the pandemic and the need to act urgently. We have been working with NHSX to help them ensure a high level of transparency and governance. We will continue to offer that support during the life of the app as it is developed, rolled out and when it is no longer needed.”

In a blog post published last week, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said that data protection laws should not get in the way of innovative use of data in a public health emergency as long as principles of law such as transparency, fairness, and proportionality are applied.

“My office will continue to reflect these exceptional times, and will offer our help and guidance to projects looking to find innovative ways to help society. Put simply, we will want to see evidence that COVID-19 initiatives do what they intend to do – that they work in practice, that they are proportionate, that people can access their rights in law, and that there is a plan in place to stand down measures when no longer needed,” she said.

With reference to the contact tracing app launched by NHSX, Denham said that the ICO has been able to “offer our advice and support to NHSX. In particular, we have spoken about the high level of transparency and governance this app would need, and a focus on continued review that the data being collected and used is necessary and proportionate. We are committed to providing oversight during the life of the app.”

“We have worked with the Information Commissioner's Office, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and others, ensuring anything we do gives confidence to the public. The app would store anonymous proximity information securely on your phone, and will only share that information with the NHS when you allow it to. The data will only ever be used in the interests of providing care, public health management, and relevant research. Users will always have the right to delete the app, and their data,” said NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould.

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