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Ada Lovelace Institute questions effectiveness of UK contact-tracing strategy

Independent study institute for user-focused data and AI solutions argues that NHS Covid-19 tracking plans will not be effective unless action is taken to address technical limitations

Despite the best efforts of the UK’s NHS to develop a technological solution to aid the fight against Covid-19, research body the Ada Lovelace Institute says it has seen no evidence to support the immediate deployment of digital contact tracing or immunity certification.

In a wide-reaching report, the institute warns that the NHS plans to use technology to help reduce the spread of coronavirus will not be effective unless the government takes action to address the technical limitations, barriers to effective deployment and social impacts of the technology.

It adds 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 independent institute, which is dedicated to ensuring that data and artificial intelligence (AI) work for people and society, is also calling for the establishment of a new group of advisers to oversee the development and testing of any proposed digital tracing application. 

The call comes just as the NHS has become embroiled in a dispute with Apple and Google after the tech firms announced a partnership to accelerate contact-tracing technology to control the spread of Covid-19. The Silicon Valley giants announced on 14 April that their software developers would contribute by crafting technical tools to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.

The proposed technology includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing, while maintaining strong protections around user privacy, said the companies.

But their proposal met with pushback from the NHS, whose digital healthcare innovation unit, NHSX, is exploring the idea of developing an app that alerts people if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. The contact-tracing app would allow the UK government and healthcare officials to instantly track the spread of infection digitally, removing the need for time-consuming manual tracking.

However, the NHS has voiced concerns that the Apple/Google solution would go against its own plans for contact tracing, namely that by only informing an individual about being in contact with an infected person, and not informing a central registry, it would not be possible for the health authority to gain a clear picture of the virus’ spread.

Joining the debate, the Ada Lovelace Institute has now questioned whether the UK government’s and NHSX’s solutions will be safe, fair and equitable. In a study, Exit through the app store?, a review of evidence on the technical considerations and societal implications of using technology to transition from the Covid-19 crisis, the institute recognises that technology and data may be critical to enabling the UK to transition from the crisis, acknowledging that lifting lockdown measures and getting people back to work has not only economic drivers, but social and public health drivers. 

Yet the report 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 Group of Advisers on Technology in Emergencies (GATE) to oversee the development and testing of any proposed digital tracing application.

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.

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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. It sees GATE making recommendations about how to ensure technologies protect privacy by design and by default. 

Given what it believes is the lack of evidence of effectiveness, the institute concludes that installation of a digital contact-tracing app should not be mandatory and that to make it so would probably fall foul of human rights standards.

Ada Lovelace Institute director Carly Kind 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 roll-out 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.

“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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