NHS plans to rollout digital contact tracing to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 will not be effective unless the government takes action to address the technical limitations, barriers to effective deployment and social impacts of the technology, according to a rapid evidence review published today by the Ada Lovelace Institute.
The evidence review sets out proposals for whether, and how, the UK Government should use technology to transition from the COVID-19 global public health crisis. It concludes that there is no evidence to support the immediate deployment of digital contact tracing or immunity certification and calls for the establishment of a new Group of Advisors on Technology in Emergencies (GATE) to oversee the development and testing of any proposed digital tracing application.
Exit through the App Store? A rapid review of evidence on the technical considerations and societal implications of using technology to transition from the COVID-19 crisis recognises that technology and data may be critical to enabling the UK to transition from the crisis, and acknowledges that lifting lockdown measures and getting people back to work has not only economic drivers, but social and public health drivers. The rapid review finds that premature deployment of ineffective apps could undermine public trust and confidence in the long-term, hampering the widespread uptake of tracking technologies which may be critical to their eventual success.
The review recommends that the deployment of COVID-19 technologies should be subject to the sign-off of the GATE advisory body, which would consider the effectiveness of any tool within the context of diagnostic testing capacity and after an assessment of its likely adoption. GATE would also make recommendations about how to ensure technologies protect privacy by design and by default.
• There is an absence of evidence to support the immediate national deployment of symptom tracking applications, digital contact tracing applications and digital immunity certificates.
• Technical design choices should factor in privacy-by-design and accessibility features and should be buttressed by non-technical measures to account for digital exclusion.
If a digital contact tracing application is approved, the Ada Lovelace Institute recommends the introduction of primary legislation to regulate data processing and to impose strict purpose, access and time limitations on its use, which would also address concerns about other data-driven measures such as symptom tracking. Given the lack of evidence of effectiveness, the review concludes that installation of a digital contact tracing app should not be mandatory and that to make it so would likely fall foul of human rights standards.
Digital immunity certification
The review also considered the evidence on digital immunity certification and concluded that while there is broad agreement that widespread testing is the only route through which the UK can exit the crisis, there is currently insufficient understanding of immunity, no robust scientific means of testing for immunity and therefore no credible basis for establishing a comprehensive regime of immunity certification at this time.
In light of this, the Ada Lovelace Institute is calling for a comprehensive government strategy around immunity that considers the societal implications of any immunity certification regime. Should a credible scientific basis for immunity testing be established, then government must introduce primary legislation stipulating when, why and under what conditions individuals are required to be tested for and disclose their immunity status, and preventing both public authorities and private companies from requesting or requiring disclosure of immunity status outside of defined circumstances.
Carly Kind, Director of the Ada Lovelace Institute said: “The Government is right to explore non-clinical measures in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, but it must take action to ensure technological applications, such as the proposed NHS rollout of digital contact tracing, do not become counter-productive because of a failure to take account of both the barriers to deployment and the full impact on people and society.
“Bad uses of data and technology can do more harm than good. They can obscure accurate analyses, hide abuses of power and exacerbate the position of people already suffering from digital exclusion, who – evidence is beginning to show – are the same people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. Premature deployment of a digital contact tracing app, which will ultimately rely on widespread public uptake to be effective, risks tarnishing public trust and confidence in technologies that could assist a transition out of the crisis.
“While we have seen that the public will support emergency or extreme measures that require curtailment of liberty or agency, or the increase of surveillance, if they appeal to a common sense of solidarity and are clearly justified for public good, there needs to be cast-iron ‘sunset’ clauses to dismantle any data tracking and surveillance architecture, as definitively and transparently as lifting restrictions on physical movement.”
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