Covid-19 contact tracing app will propel UK towards a surveillance state

Covid-19 contact tracing app will propel UK towards a surveillance state
Comment: The new NHS contact-tracing app puts the UK on the slippery slope of declining digital privacy in a post-coronavirus world, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
07 May, 2020
The Belgian government and others are also working towards a contact tracing app [Getty]

Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so the saying goes, and in the continued battle against the coronavirus, we may be asked to forfeit our privacy in an attempt to control the rate of infections. 

The UK government has announced that it will be rolling out a contact tracing app in the coming weeks, which people can download and report themselves as having Covid-19 symptoms, as well as receive information about those they come into contact with.

While this might sound like an ideal solution on the surface - given it may allow the end of the lockdown - many cybersecurity experts have raised concerns. Over 170 scientists and researchers published an open letter filled with warnings to the British government following the news that NHSX - the digital health wing of the NHS - would be depending on the app and the use of Bluetooth signals.

Experts stated that they were "unnerved" over the use of the social graph which traces the interactions that people have, including who they are meeting with, and that this information could be used by a "bad actor (state, private sector, or hacker)" to spy on people. The signatories stressed throughout the letter, the need for thorough analysis of this use of technology, to ensure that "we have not created a tool that enables data collection on the population, or on targeted sections of society, for surveillance."

This news is particularly worrying given how this technology has already been deployed by the Indian government, for example. The Aarogya Setu app, which has been downloaded by over 80 million people following instruction from Narendra Modi"s government, is feared to be facilitating the process of mass surveillance for the authoritarian state.

We should be wary of easy fixes to structural failures

Using Bluetooth and GPS, the app provides the state with extensive information on an individual's private life - their movements, and those they interact with. There is little clarity over the protection of people"s rights, or indeed the likely length of this project. 

The example of India, whose government has capitalised on the quarantine period to intensify its attacks on civil liberties, serves as a worrying warning for its use in the British context. Under Modi, police have used drones and GPS signals to follow individuals. Charges have been brought and arrests made of activists, journalists and those critical of his government, while judicial institutions and processes that could lead to freeing them have been suspended. 

Author and activist Arundhati Roy told The Guardian that, "Pre-corona, if we were sleepwalking into the surveillance state, now we are panic-running into a super-surveillance state." 

These practices in India are an extreme case, especially given the lack of updated privacy and data protection laws. But they demonstrate how easily a state can co-opt supposed solutions to a crisis. 

Experts who know all too well the nature of such systems also recognise the potentially catastrophic impacts on a global scale. In fact, a few weeks ago 300 of them joined an international plea for governments to ensure as much transparency and accountability as possible in their use of contact tracing apps.

Read more: 
How coronavirus presented China with a dream opportunity for surveillance

In a public statement, they highlighted that some Bluetooth-based technologies can facilitate government or private sector surveillance. Even with the best intentions, the danger of using the data for political or so-called security purposes, will increase as time goes on, through potential mission creep. 

With the current state of exception, however, we should be worried about the extent to which the UK government will use a climate of fear to push the boundaries of how far it can go in undermining privacy. 

The hurried passing of the Coronavirus Act 2020 has certainly laid the groundwork for further erosions of our civil liberties. There are reports that police have already gone as far as using a drone to follow people during the lockdown. It further grants the government special powers for at least two years - a much longer period than the lockdown is expected to last. 

The danger is that when new powers are granted to the state, they are rarely rolled back voluntarily. The recent history of our own government should remind us of this fact. The special measures granted to fight terrorism in the so-called "War on Terror" are not only still in place two decades later, they have intensified throughout this period.

From increased checks in airports to facial recognition software, we have rapidly moved to the extension of state surveillance into the public sector and the policing of political dissent through such policies as Prevent.

The danger of using the data for political or so-called security purposes, will increase as time goes on, through potential mission creep

Given Muslims, people of colour and migrants have felt the brunt of all these policies in recent years, the over-policing of these communities through new powers and, now technology, will also only worsen.

Data from "suspect communities" will be more available, increasing the potential for it to be used nefariously. Practices like Schedule 7 which have been disproportionately used to target Muslims, have provided border forces the power to stop and demand private information
like the passwords to personal electronic devices. What kind of reality should we expect for those most vulnerable to state violence when explicit permission to access our data will no longer be required? 

The release of the app will be very attractive to many because it will mean a step closer to leaving our homes, returning to normal public interactions, schools re-opening and a return to work for many who are trapped in forced unemployment.

Yet, we should be wary of easy fixes to structural failures. What is needed, urgently and into the long term, is a well-funded health care system which can test, treat, and isolate patients effectively without facing shortages or being overwhelmed.

This is the safest route out of lockdown, and the surest strategy to avoid a repeat of the current situation. No app will deliver this outcome however, nor will the voluntary surrender of our civil liberties. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.