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Will the NHS coronavirus app be your latest download?

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The NHS is developing a new app to track coronavirus, but how will the potential significant benefits from a healthcare perspective be balanced against our data protection rights?

What will the app do?

An algorithm will identify patients most at risk from developing complications as a result of coronavirus. The current proposal is that, as well as tracking individuals that fall into the “vulnerable” category, the app will track individuals who have tested as covid-19 positive. Any other app users who have been in contact with an individual who has tested positive, or who has reported coronavirus symptoms via the app, will be notified that they have been in contact with an infected or potentially infected individual. Advice relating to self-isolation will follow.

At a recent press conference, the health secretary, Matt Hancock said “Today I wanted to outline the next step: a new NHS app for contact tracing. If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app and the app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you’ve been in significant contact with over the past few days, even before you had symptoms, so that they know and can act accordingly.”

What about GDPR?

Matt Hancock has confirmed that “All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, would only be used for NHS care and research, and we won’t hold it any longer than it’s needed”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has confirmed that it deems it appropriate to collect data to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic, but that people’s privacy and data must be protected at the same time.

The extent to which information gathered via the app will be used is currently unclear. Queries have been raised as to whether the information could be used to enforce social distancing by tracking the amount of time a person spends away from their home. It may also, in the future, confirm immunity in those who have contracted and recovered from coronavirus. The benefits of using the app for these additional purposes will need to be considered alongside the possibility that fewer people will download and use the app if its use extends beyond virus tracking.

While coronavirus is at the forefront of everybody’s minds, we are also increasingly aware of our data protection rights, and more and more cautious in terms of the data we reveal. It will be a difficult balancing act for the NHS and the government.

If you have any questions about your organisation’s compliance with GDPR, or if you would like a free of charge internal process map for dealing with GDPR breaches and subject access requests, please contact Florence Maxwell or Matthew Hattersley.

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