The UK Needs a Track-and-Trace System We Can Trust With Our Data

Covid-19

The UK Needs a Track-and-Trace System We Can Trust With Our Data

Commentary
Posted on: 24th June 2020
Chris Yiu
Executive Director, Technology and Public Policy

INT. THE RED LION - ENGLAND - EARLY EVENING

A group of friends is waiting in line at their local pub. A member of staff is in charge of recording people's contact details as they arrive, in case there's another outbreak of Covid-19 and customers need to be traced.

 

STAFF: Good evening. I need to take your name, phone number and email address please.

FRIEND #1: Writing my personal details down on that clipboard doesn't seem very secure. In fact I can see the names and phone numbers of the group that came in just before us.

STAFF: Don't worry, once this sheet of paper is full I'll put it in the office. No one will see it there.

 

FRIEND #1 looks unsure, but writes down their contact details and heads for the bar. FRIEND #2 enters.

 

STAFF: Good evening. I need to take your name, phone number and email address please.

FRIEND #2: I can give you those, but how will you know I'm telling you the truth?

STAFF: Good point. Tell you what, why don't I take a photo of your driving licence instead? At the end of the night I'll copy your details down and then delete the photo. I promise not to WhatsApp it to anyone (though your picture *is* pretty funny...).

FRIEND #2: Ok fine, whatever. Just let me in.

 

FRIEND #2 holds up their driving licence to be photographed. FRIEND #3 enters.

 

STAFF: Good evening. I need to take your name, phone number and email address please.

FRIEND #3: I already gave those to the person managing the queue outside.

STAFF: We don't have anyone managing the queue outside.

FRIEND #3: Oh.

 

===

 

As the government prepares to relax the lockdown in England on 4th July, there are suggestions that a range of venues - from bars and restaurants to hairdressers and cinemas - will be required to record people's contact details.

In the absence of a comprehensive containment infrastructure, measures like this will need to be implemented widely and effectively for a track-and-trace scheme to work. 

The risks are obvious: we've never asked so many organisations to get ready to record so much sensitive data, let alone in such a short space of time.

The existing rules for handling personal data should provide some protection. But there's a good chance they will prove impossible to enforce consistently at the scale being envisaged, or only catch up with problems too late to do anything about them.

One productive way forward would be to borrow some ideas from the tech sector. For example, when you ride with Uber your trip details are securely recorded, but the driver doesn't see your phone number. If you live in Estonia, the country's digital healthcare system ensures there is an indelible record of anyone who tries to access your patient data.

The most practical approach probably involves QR codes. With the right digital identity infrastructure in place, venues could scan individual QR codes on people's phones to sign them in, with all contact data remaining encrypted until unlocked by a health authority.

People without a smartphone, or who choose not to use an app, could have their contact details recorded manually instead.

Alternatively, venues could display QR codes for people to scan before entering. This might be faster to get up and running — after all, most organisations probably have access to a printer — but comes with other challenges around adherence and tracing people without smartphones.

In any event, on the path the UK government has chosen for lifting the lockdown, the only way to stay on top of the situation is to collect enough data to spot new outbreaks early and stop them fast.

The good news is that there are ways to do this without taking unnecessary risks with everyone's personal data. The question is whether the government has left itself enough time to get it right.

Find out more
institute.global