Ahead of the proposed national roll-out of the NHSX COVID-19 contact tracing app, there has been criticism of it by privacy advocates and others. In this article we adopt a unified view from a collective technology law, data protection law, as well as technical perspective, and hopefully address some of those concerns, to guard against undermining the tremendous effort which is being invested into a life-saving solution.
Is the NHSX App even necessary?
The importance of contact tracing was apparent as soon as the coronavirus pandemic manifested itself in the UK, as well as other parts of the world. The objective was that those who had been exposed to it would be quarantined to guard against spreading the infection, especially considering the exponential rate of the contagion.
However, contact tracing through manual means is resource intensive. Furthermore, although an individual who has tested positive for coronavirus can identify some of those people with whom he or she has been in contact, this becomes much more difficult to do:
- when an individual has been in public places and does not know the identity of those in close proximity to him or her (such as standing in a shopping queue or on the London Tube);
- when an individual seeks to recall the different exposure distances and contact times he or she has had with others (for example standing quite close to someone for several minutes gives rise to a different risk exposure than passing someone in the street); or
- when an individual starts showing symptoms, and then tries to work out both the pre-symptom and post-symptom contacts (taking into account that the virus could be contagious before the symptoms are apparent).
We only have to consider the following recent news from South Korea to note the importance of contact tracing to guard against a second wave of infections after lockdown measures are relaxed. In early May, one individual, who subsequently tested positive for coronavirus, visited five nightclubs and bars during one night, leading to a new wave of infections. Over 2,000 establishments were subsequently ordered to be closed for a month, and several thousand individuals were urged to be tested for coronavirus. This scare occurred after the government had relaxed social distancing measures with the virus seemingly under control.
This shows that, alongside the rapid spread of coronavirus in the UK and other countries, manual contact tracing will not curb the spread of the virus. Hence the need for an automated way of undertaking contact tracing to save lives.