Even when the lockdown is lifted, there is no guarantee that life will ever return to normal. To prevent a future outbreak of coronavirus, the UK will need to roll out mass testing, maintain some social distancing measures and closely monitor communities to curb future flare-ups.
In pursuing that last aim, governments across the world are developing technology to track our movements. When lockdown ends, technology could be a valuable means of controlling future outbreaks, alerting people to cases of Covid-19 in their area and hopefully preventing future shutdowns.
In the UK this technology seems likely to come from the NHS, in the form of an app that logs our proximity to others and notifies us if it’s time to self-isolate. This software has rightly raised concerns from civil liberty advocates because the ideal app needs to achieve a number of things: it should protect users’ privacy, be transparent about the data it collects and be designed in a way that is useful to both epidemiologists and the people using it. Achieving all three is easier said than done.
Protecting privacy is a near-impossible task for an app of this nature. Experts suggest that a contact-tracking app will have the capability to trace and identify individuals who are exposed to someone with Covid-19. While Apple and Google are developing foundations for an app that protects privacy, the NHS plans to take a difference approach, collecting data to enable more detailed tracing. Centralised systems with more detailed information can better track the impact of the virus, but they also risk bolstering the UK government’s already extensive surveillance infrastructure. And although these decisions are being made under emergency powers, ostensibly easy to discard after the pandemic, the introduction of those powers were passed with no debate.
An app with such risks – in a post-Cambridge Analytica world – is unlikely to be adopted by the public without pushback. There is also a risk that the app won’t achieve what it is intended to. Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which sends short-distance Bluetooth signals to connect with other people using the app, thereby giving the government a database by which to track potential coronavirus carriers, is the oft-cited archetype for future applications. But while it needs 4 million users to be truly effective, only 1 million have downloaded it voluntarily. It’s worth noting that in addition to its app, Singapore swiftly enforced a lockdown, placed strict controls on arrivals from infected regions and prescribed the use of face masks.
The UK would require approximately 36 million people to sign up and engage with the app in order for us to benefit. Moreover, an app based on Bluetooth may flag up anyone, regardless of whether they are actually at risk of catching coronavirus. This would generate false signals.
The government may decide to push the app through anyway, and later ask for forgiveness rather than permission. It has fallen to journalists to break the news that the government is in talks with EE about using mobile phone data in order to monitor whether people are following social distancing guidelines, and that a Covid-19 datastore will collect (albeit anonymously) people’s gender, postcode, symptoms, prescriptions and any calls they made to 111. Yet this should not be surprising. Long before the lockdown began, the roll-out of facial recognition in London was pushed through with little consent given by those being surveilled, despite scandals over providing databases to private organisations.
To some, an app like this may seem like a fair trade. The argument has been made that “selling our digital souls” to the state is preferable to the current lockdown. Some have praised Taiwan, where the authorities will visit households that turn off their phones, and South Korea, where health authorities pool credit card information and CCTV footage to monitor an infected person’s movements. It seems unlikely that Conservative advocates of these solutions would offer the same praise to authoritarian China, or so keenly sacrifice their digital rights to a Labour government.
Nevertheless, one must assume this app will still be released in spite of ideological and practical concerns, because when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose the latter. Once that has happened, it could be difficult to put the genie back into the bottle. Throughout history, during moments of crisis, rightwing governments have sought to consolidate their power by introducing measures without the threat of democratic opposition.
As Naomi Klein has documented, the disorder created by the Falklands war helped Margaret Thatcher launch a frenzy of privatisation. The Chinese government used the Tiananmen Square massacre to shock its citizens into accepting a system where free markets could be combined with authoritarian political control. The coronavirus pandemic is not a war, despite the rhetoric, but supporters of the government are keen to paint Boris Johnson as a “Churchillian” leader, and provide him with the opportunity to remake the country (as other leaders are currently doing).
Recent history provides a clear warning about the close relationship between our government and Big Tech. When Google partnered with the NHS to develop an app that monitored kidney injury, critics said the search giant broke its pledge to never connect the data with its accounts of services. When Amazon partnered with the NHS to allow its Alexa voice-assisted speakers to read out health information, the retail giant secretly received vast amounts of NHS data so it could develop future products. And although Apple and Google have said that their contact-tracing apps would limit applications that tried to create a centralised database of contacts, the government has beaten down Apple on its security principles before.
In developing this software, the government needs to be clear about its priorities and the capabilities of the app, and transparent with the public about both. At a time when science fiction and reality feel as if they are collapsing in on each other, we must resist the temptations of Big Brother; we would just be trading one kind of lockdown for another.
Adam Smith is a technology reporter at the Independent
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