Privacy rights campaigners have warned that Scotland’s new proximity tracing app must be shown to respect user privacy if it is to be fully embraced by the public.
Matthew Rice, Scotland Director for Open Rights Group, made the comments following news that the Protect Scotland proximity tracing app could be launched within a matter of days.
Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland show yesterday, NHS Scotland’s national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch said the app is expected to be rolled-out imminently.
The tracing system, which he described as an “extra piece of armour” to monitor the spread of the virus, will trace people’s movements via their smartphones.
Individuals who may have come into contact with Covid-positive app users will then be alerted and advised to isolate and/or get tested.
“It’s almost ready to go,” he told Good Morning Scotland. “We’ve got to dot some Is and cross some Ts, but in the next few days we are hopeful that we’ll be able to announce that it’s happening, what exactly it is, and how people we’ll be able to get it.”
Speaking last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described the app as a “significant enhancement” to the current test and protect system.
Leitch said it will be crucial to tracking the spread of the virus moving forward – especially on transportation or in hospitality settings.
The roll-out of the Protect Scotland app also comes at a critical time. The country has seen a rise in cases in the past week and concerns are growing over a potential “second wave” of the virus both in Scotland and throughout the UK.
Development of the app has been a point of major discussion in recent weeks, with privacy rights groups raising questions over transparency and data privacy.
Leitch, however, insisted the app will adhere to strict privacy protocols.
“It will be very private, it won’t track you, it won’t hold the data of where you’ve been or who you’ve been with,” he said.
“But, what it will do is add an extra tool, an extra piece of armour, to fix that test and protect system to allow us to get the positive cases who are in touch and don’t know each other,” Leitch added.
Matthew Rice said the app shows “encouraging signs” due to its development as a decentralised – and thus privacy preserving – system.
Similarly, the app’s core function at this stage appears to be focused primarily on proximity tracing, and as such, doesn’t present a significant privacy risk.
“This should mean no geolocation or requests for additional data, like postcode, when a user downloads the app for the first time. It remains to be seen whether that is the case,” Rice said.
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However, as a voluntary system, the Scottish Government will be forced to rely on the public to download the app and embrace it on their own accord.
“The proximity tracing app will be voluntary. As a result, to be successful it will rely on the goodwill and trust of the Scottish population to download and switch it on,” Rice said.
“This goodwill and trust will only be earned if the App can be shown to respect the privacy of Scottish citizens,” he added.
Rice suggested that while system design will be crucial to securing public trust, Holyrood must ensure that communication and clear-cut governance are priorities. In particular, he called for the publication of guidance over its use; specifically in regards to the app’s status as a voluntary system.
“That [public trust] is down to system design, but also communication and governance in place,” he explained.
“This [communication] should include the early publication of data protection impact assessments and setting out clearly that this should only be used voluntarily, with no compulsion for an individual to download and run the app by employers, or as a condition for entry into places like bars or restaurants,” Rice said.