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Public Health England to keep contact-tracing data for 20 years

PHE will retain the data it collects via the NHS Test and Trace programme for 20 years

Public Health England (PHE) will retain the personal data of British citizens gathered through the NHS’s Covid-19 coronavirus Test and Trace programme until the year 2040, it has emerged.

The programme, which launched today despite being mired in alleged IT problems and minus the controversial contact-tracing app, is intended to help bring the UK out of lockdown by tracking down the personal contacts of those who test positive for Covid-19, which has now likely killed more than 60,000 people in the UK at the rate of 891 per million, which may be one of the highest death rates in the world.

As of today, those who receive a positive test result must share information about their recent contacts, defined as household members or anybody they have been in direct contact with – or within two metres of – for a period of more than 15 minutes. These people will then be instructed to self-isolate for two weeks even if they do not have symptoms themselves.

To do this, PHE will be gathering names, dates of birth, home postcodes and telephone numbers and email addresses.

According to a privacy notice posted to PHE’s website, the data will be held in a “secure cloud environment, which is kept up-to-date to protect it from viruses and hacking”.

PHE said the data could only be seen by those with a “specific and legitimate role in the response” and who are working on the programme, all of whom have been trained. It added that all the data will be held in the UK, and that no personally identifiable information (PII) from the dataset will be published externally, although it may be shared within the NHS if needed.

However, the notice said: “The personal identifiable information collected by the NHS Test and Trace on people with coronavirus or who have symptoms will be kept for 20 years.

“The personal identifiable information collected on the contacts of people with coronavirus, including those who are showing symptoms, will be kept for five years.

“The information needs to be kept for this long as it may be needed to help control the spread of coronavirus, both currently and possibly in the future,” said PHE.

People do have certain rights pertaining to this data as set out in the privacy notice, however there is no absolute right to ask for the data held on you to be deleted.

PHE’s data collection operation is covered under Articles 6(1)(e) and 9(2)(i) of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which state that the data can be used if data processing is necessary to perform a task in the public interest or to exercise official authority vested in the controller, and if data processing is necessary for reasons of public interest relating to public health.

The organisation has also received permission from the Department for Health and Social Care to use PII without consent if it is in the public interest, under Section 251 of the NHS Act 2006.

FireEye’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) chief technology officer (CTO), David Grout, said that both the length of time the data will be stored for and the lack of control over how it is used and kept were bound to cause privacy concerns.

“This might not be too much of a headache for the government while manual tracking is the norm, it is hard for the public to opt out of that, but it will become more of an issue when NHSX’s contact-tracing app is launched as this will rely on the public opting in for the project to work,” said Grout.

Grout went on to explain that concerns about data usage in the app, and how long the data is stored for, could affect the number of people willing to download it onto their smartphones, which needs to be high in order for Test and Trace to be a success.

“Moreover, any reservations around how long data is stored are legitimate – the longer sensitive data is held for, the more risk there is for the data to be accessed and exploited,” he warned.

“If the government could assure the public that the data is not being collected indefinitely and is being stored securely, it could encourage greater adoption and, more importantly, ensure the data is not misused in the future.”

Read more about contact-tracing security

  • Health secretary Matt Hancock believes that existing data protection law, alongside his assurances, is good enough to guarantee public trust in the security of contact-tracing data.
  • Human Rights Committee Chair Harriet Harman says current data protection law is not up to the job of governing the data collected by the Covid-19 contact-tracing app.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated extreme measures not seen in peacetime for over 100 years. Contact-tracing apps are being developed as a tool for managing the pandemic, but are they a step too far?

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