Hancock: Coronavirus contact-tracing app has privacy built in from the start

5 May 2020, 10:05

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The government's new coronavirus contact-tracing app has "privacy built-in from the start," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said today amid concerns over privacy around its use.

Matt Hancock told LBC's Nick Ferrari the "only reason" for introducing the app was to help the UK map the spread of Covid-19.

The minister was addressing concerns the app could infringe on people's civil liberties by following them everywhere they go and keeping track of everyone they visit.

"The purpose of this technology is to help Britain get back on her feet by being able to trace the virus; that is the only reason for it," he said.

"The data that this app picks up will be stored on your own phone until the point where if you have symptoms you need to contact the NHS when obviously we need to know who you are so we can get you a test."

Concerns have been raised over the data used by the contact-tracing app
Concerns have been raised over the data used by the contact-tracing app. Picture: PA

Mr Hancock stressed that privacy had been "built-in from the start" and urged as many people to download the app in order to save lives.

"It will help us to control the spread of the virus and so to reduce the amount of other social distancing measures that we need," he said.

When asked how long one must have been exposed to someone for the app to register the encounter, the health secretary replied: "Around 15 minutes... that is the best scientific estimate, rather than an absolute, but that is the best estimate that we've got."

Despite suggesting the app would be successful if enough people download it, the minister said technology alone cannot trace coronavirus.

"It's also about having people who are contact tracers being able to go out when somebody tests positive, to go and talk to them and find out who they've been in contact with."

"If you test positive, the app would say who you've been within two metres of for more than 15 minutes but then they'd also phone you up and say, 'Who have you been in contact with? Who have you spent time with?'"

He explained that it is anonymous and that it does not say who you have been in contact with, only that you have been in contact with someone who has displayed symptoms.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Hancock said one of the aspects being tested in the trial on the Isle of Wight is whether the best thing is for someone who gets a message saying they have been in contact with someone with symptoms should self-isolate "in case you develop the symptoms."

"This is one of the reasons that we want to test it to ensure that we get the rules right around what we advise people to do as soon as the contact tracing pings you," he added.

It is hoped the app would allow the government to have a picture of where there might be virus hotspots.

He said: "The more people who have the app the better."

Mr Hancock was also asked why the UK app is different to the Google and Apple app being used elsewhere.

Matt Hancock also told LBC the Nightingale Hospital has been a big success
Matt Hancock also told LBC the Nightingale Hospital has been a big success. Picture: LBC / PA

He replied: "Other countries don't have the NHS, they have private healthcare, and it doesn't work in quite the same way, and that means that we've got additional features on ours, but of course we're working with Apple and Goggle and it may be that if you go abroad you might need to download the app of a different country.

"Fine, that's not a problem, but of course very few people are travelling at the moment, so that really is an issue for the future rather than for now.

"The system that we're building is all about trying to make sure we do everything we can to control the spread of the virus because that will then help us to be able to release more of the social distancing measures that are impacting on everybody."

Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen has said the government should look at decentralised app models - where contact-tracing data stays on a user's device.

The charity said: "The government may be planning to route private data through a central database, opening the door to pervasive state surveillance and privacy infringement, with potentially discriminatory effects."

When asked about these comments, Mr Hancock said: "That's completely wrong."

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