A short step from contact-tracing to mass surveillance

The NHS's promised contact-tracing app could easily pose a threat to our freedoms.

Ryan Christopher


Whenever the dust settles on the corona era, and historians look back at what made it significant, there will be plenty to chew over. They will discuss the scientific models, government policies, the individual heroes, the economic fallout and the shift in the relationship between China and the West.

But, however seismic these phenomena are, historians have written about these types of things before. They have explored the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Spanish Flu, the Cold War and the ‘Blitz spirit’.

What is potentially novel and unique about the happenings of the corona era is that Western states began to relate to their citizens through an app. This represents a social and administrative revolution between people and their governors, fuelled by the ostensibly admirable motivation to save lives and protect public health.

Yet where that revolution could lead can be glimpsed in China’s social-credit system, which ranks citizens according to such behavioural criteria as their trustworthiness.

That is because, used to their potential, apps can reveal almost every significant aspect of the lives of the people connected to them, from browsing history to romantic conversations and stress levels. State access to such personal data has the potential to benefit public health, which is why NHSX has developed its first ‘contact tracing’ app.

Appearing before the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Matthew Gould, the head of NHSX, was at pains to point out how limited the data collected will be, and that the app would only pass on information that is voluntarily given. The version of the app being trialled on the Isle of Wight, requires your postcode area and information about your symptoms and it generates a unique identifier number. This data is then used to alert your phone contacts to prevent the spread of a virus.

The current model sounds benign enough, and comparisons with China could seem alarmist. Still, it would only take one or two more data fields to enable the government to begin to identify individuals, given that some postcode areas contain fewer than 10,000 households. When asked about the possibility of the app requiring more data in the future, Gould could only offer assurances that when they do, such requests will be ‘voluntary’ and in ‘plain English’.

But just how voluntary is voluntary? There will inevitably be social pressure on individuals to download and use the app. Furthermore, many public-health regimes incentivise or penalise citizens for not ‘voluntarily’ participating. Israel, for instance, places citizens lower on waiting lists if they do not voluntarily donate their organs. It is not difficult to imagine how a voluntary system could become mandatory in practice if not in law, especially if it were to evolve into an immunity passport enabling essential work and travel.

Questions have been raised about where data is to be stored and who gets to see it. When quizzed about the latter, Gould could only say that there was ‘no definitive list’ regarding which government agencies would have access. Controversially, the UK is planning to operate a centralised data system rather than the de-centralised type most other countries are using. NHSX admits that centralised models are less data-secure, less private, and leave the app unable to inter-operate with those in other countries.

And here we get to the heart of the issue. De-centralised models are sufficient to enable contact tracing. The only reason Gould could give to justify a centralised model is the power such data gives to government agencies. However, such potential can only be realised if more information is required of users in the future. Thus, the government has intentionally chosen a model incentivised towards continually asking for increasing amounts of private information.

If the NHSX app is not to evolve into something like a Chinese-style social-credit score or health passport, bespoke legislation and regulation will be required to set hard boundaries. Legislation requires a formal assessment of how proportionate government use of personal information will be, balanced against the legitimate aims of the project. The proportionality bar is likely to be high, given that personal information is afforded special protection under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Such rights assessments cannot be properly conducted by the Information Commissioner, the only body with sanctioning power currently overseeing the project.

Worryingly, UK health secretary Matt Hancock denies the need for new safeguards or scrutiny around a project that has the potential radically and permanently to transform the way citizens relate to their governments. This ought to concern everyone who cares for the future of our freedoms in the corona era.

Ryan Christopher leads the work of ADF International in the UK.

Picture by: Getty.

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Justin Smith

15th May 2020 at 12:59 am

ID2020 is not being talked about much on british Broadcasting Constrictor, I wonder why?

jan mozelewski

13th May 2020 at 2:46 pm

They will struggle to trace me. I don’t (and never have ) own a mobile phone.

Jonathan Marshall

13th May 2020 at 12:50 pm

I have not even got a “thickphone”, never mind a smartphone – but I wonder how long it will be before they are made compulsory?

jan mozelewski

13th May 2020 at 2:49 pm

Maybe. I once found the ankle-tag of an offender while out in the countryside. It was suspended on a tree branch which was swaying precariously over an enormous tank of slurry.

Mike Smith

13th May 2020 at 12:47 pm


Current act does not allow mass surveillance. It’s on a case by case basis and only effects lawbreakers where sentence could be over 1 years imprisonment

Adamsson 66

13th May 2020 at 11:08 am

Fortunately the NHSX app is unlikely to work as it will keep going to sleep so once have delayed for a few weeks and spent a billion or two they will use the Apple /Google system. Unfortunately because the testing system is still a mess (more control freakery) that will have issues as well because anyone could cause chaos by starting false alarms

Mike Stallard

13th May 2020 at 10:45 am

In Abu Dhabi, you have to have a phone and you have to use it to withdraw money from your account, to pay in many shops, to do any transaction with the government. Every resident has to be insured for health issues. There is a Ministry building which I have seen which processes the transactions. Everyone has a phone. Alexa is turned off when people want a private conversation too. In one schoolroom a teacher was telling the class about a political matter outside the country and a boy simply said, “You are not allowed to say that.” He knew he had the power to sack the teacher.
These are all things which are unthinkable here – at the moment…

Highland Fleet Lute

13th May 2020 at 9:11 am

Anti-Lockdown Demo. Hyde Park. This Saturday



13th May 2020 at 8:09 am

The only thing that this pandemic has achieved (as no lives have been saved-in fact people who should be alive have been killed by it ie by nursing homes being made to take infected patients , other illnesses left untreated )is to move us to this new impersonal world in which we can be all tracked. Small business has been killed off so we have a limited choice over what we can buy and do. This new world will be especially cruel to the elderly, disabled and poor. The divide and conquer of social isolation has meant that any opposition can be immediately monitored and suppressed (just like China) At the moment it is a very comfortable prison-but how long can whole countries survive on the ‘dole’?

Annabel Resistor

13th May 2020 at 7:49 am

There is a court case in the American courts by the AI Organisation on behalf of the worlds population against Microsoft the Gates Foundation and the UN and WHO and more. Everyone needs to read that when considering the use the government could make with their app. A government committee has already said it breaches our human rights. An ex government lawyer talked about repealing the human rights act.
There is also the use that could be made by the new biosecurity agency I see a new Stasi like organisation. Then there are the crucifying fines in the new regulations about to be debated. How will people be able to demonstrate against what could affectively be a health dictatorship? We are the many they are the few. If we cannot demonstrate without losing our financial security then you have another way to give the power to the authorities rather than to the people.
Theresa May said all good things to get into power and then was intent on handing power back to Brussels, what if Boris Johnson is a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Talking about democracy when planning the opposite?
There are no reasons why we should have our freedoms taken away when the University of Oxford say the epidemic is over.
I am worried that people are selling their and their children’s freedoms for a few months furlough pay.
Wake up people!


13th May 2020 at 9:41 am

Annabel, sadly my experience (wholly anecdotal as it is) is that more people are for greater surveillance and control than for resisting the growth of state power. I fully and freely admit that while I’m wholly in sympathy with the ‘Resisters’ I’ve no intention of dying on the barricades with them.


13th May 2020 at 10:33 am

At the moment most of our Western elites are trying to shore up China-whose empire seems to be falling to bits-these elites changed their allegiance to China when the Soviet Union/Eeastern bloc came to an end. Strange how the so-called intelligentia seem drawn towards oppressive regimes. However China has a dicotomy-bribe some of their population with Western ‘goodies’ to keep them quiet-makes an disgruntled underclass . The one-child policy has created an inbalance with lots of frustrated young men without girlfriends. Though they have a massive army all empires come to an end as it becomes too expensive to contain other countries and look after your own people. Also China seems to be over-reacting in its suppression of religious people (which suggests they see them as a threat and also that some people will always rebel to gain freedom).Most of us live comfortable lives and also have dependents to concern us-but what about the next generation? They already seem to yearn for something spiritual (which at the moment is filled by ‘green’ nonsense )-perhaps like those persecuted Christians around the world they will value freedom over mere existence?

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