Is personal privacy more important than combatting Covid-19?

Parliament has rushed through draconian legislation to enforce the temporary destruction of economic and social life and suspension of democracy but the shibboleth of data protection still stands in the way of actions being taken in other countries. The story of how a Taiwanese dissident in isolation was contacted by four administrative units within an hour of his mobile phone running out of battery and a BBC report on the use of masks illustrate some of the differences in cultural attitudes and their reasons.

Shortly before the outbreak reached the UK the report “Me and my Big Data: Understanding citizens’ data literacies: thinking, doing and participating with out data” unpacked the very different attitudes, within the UK,  of our  “extensive political users” (the 10% who are on-line activists), extensive users (the 20% who use everything, but are not politically active), social and media users (the 17% who use little else), general users (the 31% who make little use of social networking sites) and limited users (the 22% who make little use of anything).  The visual summary of their usage patterns (page 8) and demographic summary (page 9) help make sense of the mass of survey data (Office of National Statistics, Ofcom, Audience research etc.) by age, location and social class which the report has summarised by patterns of use.

This type of analysis helps explain why concerns over personal privacy, of serious concern to the political activists who might be “picked off” by their opponents but not to the majority of the population,  have come ahead of enthusiasm over the use of mobile apps for contact tracking in the UK, but not in, for example, South East Asia.

The world is awash with phone tracking apps. The average western teenagers smart phone is said to contain about 70 – before counting those installed by parents or teachers. Many are poorly   protected with data available to anyone who will pay and/or available for global abuse by predators if not by democratically accountable law enforcement agencies.

Public Technology Net has asked, very sensibly, why the UK has not followed others in promoting apps to track Covid contacts, including to  enable the results of  mass testing to be used as soon as they become available.  We now know that this may be quite soon, but  weeks not days.  The actual advice from the Information Commissioner is here. It do not appear to preclude such an approach.

In mid February Alibaba and Tencent created colour coding apps to help record the health of individuals and identify carriers . The widespread adoption of these has been central to bringing the infection under control in China, allowing restrictions to be focused on the geographic areas at risk. 500 cinemas have just been re-opened. Those able to show green codes in Wuhan will soon have their restrictions lifted. Meanwhile one in eight phone users in Singapore have installed Trace Together to help users avoid contact with those infected. Singapore’s approach to “indentify, track and trace” has been sufficiently successful that Singapore has only just decided it needs to close cinemas and bars in response to a new peak, in which half the cases are among residents returning from overseas. Singapore has not yet needed to close all schools and/or businesses.

In the UK the debate is about the threat to civil liberty rather than the opportunity to use technology to help shorten the crisis, shrink the size of the locations where social control/isolation is necessary and reduce the numbers who will die from other causes because of isolation and recession. One model already predicts the latter will be rather more than die because of Covid-19 related infections. The Imperial College model on which current policy is based has been challenged by an Oxford study which implies that the peak may be brought under control much more quickly  provided we can organise reliable mass testing. In consequence we have an estimate that the UK lock down is likely to be three weeks rather than three months. Meanwhile over half a million have responded to the call for volunteers to help the NHS-led response . It is now being said, by the authors of the Imperial College forecasts,  that the plans already under way are such that the NHS will be able to cope with the peak they expect in three weeks.

Meanwhile the inability of HMRC and DWP to share data has led to a different crisis, well reported by Computer Weekly, affecting those made unemployed by the lock down. The cause is the pressure on DWP to use the failed Verify programme. A senior security professional told me yesterday that it had just taken him six hours to get Verify to register his identity. I will not comment on how many in similar positions have tried and given up in the past. Most of the providers withdrew last year because Verify had still failed to address problems identified by its advisory panel before I blogged on why it should be “put down”, in 2016 . Verify had already led to over 200 suicides among farmers when DeFRA tried to enforce its use for payments to farmers who had no on-line footprints or credit records because they had neither reliable broadband nor any track record of borrowing. The same will apply to many of those now being forced to apply and wait five weeks, using foodbanks, if still open, until they get their first payment. The solution appears simple – allow DWP to use the identities claimants already have for paying income tax and national insurance.

Data sharing across organisational boundaries will also be essential to enable volunteers to locate and  support the 20% 0f so of the population without mobile phones as well as those who switch them off when at home. These will almost certainly include the 1.5 million believed, according to NHS records, to be at serious risk, whether or not they are over 70.

Nothing will be the same again after this crisis, although we can make a number of predictions.

  • If the lock down lasts more than a few weeks – the young, who know they are not themselves at serious risk, will lead the break out – probably beginning with those on inner city estates where family and community structures are weakest and deprivation is at its greatest.
  • There will then be an anti-establishment reaction (akin to the Brexit vote) against the belief that experts know best and we are all in this together – unless there is a credible recovery plan to harness the pent-up talents and energy of those who have been kettled.

That recovery plan needs to begin now, using the opportunity to enable the children of those kettled in their homes to continue their education while their parents acquire new skills. Hence the reason for my recent blog of Education and Training links to draw attention to the responses of the London Grid for Learning , JISC, Open University , OpenLearn et al to help schools and colleges move their classes and courses on-line. I was also delighted to see that the host of the Plymouth Cybersecurity Skills incubator has already moved its classroom and residential courses on-line and expect other professional and commercial training providers to follow.


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