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Should the UK Government use technology to transition from the COVID-19 public health crisis?

Our rapid evidence review 'Exit through the app store?' evaluates evidence to support the immediate deployment of digital contact tracing.

20 April 2020

Exit through the App Store? Rapid evidence review Download (PDF 864 KB)

The UK Government and NHSX are looking to data-driven technologies to provide an exit from COVID-19 emergency lockdown measures, but will they be safe, fair and equitable?

A rapid evidence review published by the Ada Lovelace Institute sets out proposals for whether, and how, the UK Government should use technology to transition from the COVID-19 global public health crisis

It concludes that there is no evidence to support the immediate deployment of digital contact tracing or immunity certification and calls for the establishment of a new Group of Advisors on Technology in Emergencies (GATE) to oversee the development and testing of any proposed digital tracing application. 

Carly Kind, Director of the Ada Lovelace Institute said:

‘The Government is right to explore non-clinical measures in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, but it must take action to ensure technological applications, such as the proposed NHS rollout of digital contact tracing, do not become counter-productive because of a failure to take account of both the barriers to deployment and the full impact on people and society.’ 

Exit through the App Store? A rapid review of evidence on the technical considerations and societal implications of using technology to transition from the COVID-19 crisis recognises that technology and data may be critical to enabling the UK to transition from the crisis, acknowledging that lifting lockdown measures and getting people back to work has not only economic drivers, but social and public health drivers. 

The rapid review finds that NHS plans to use technology to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 will not be effective unless the Government takes action to address the technical limitations, barriers to effective deployment and social impacts of the technology. Premature deployment of ineffective apps could undermine public trust and confidence in the long-term, hampering the widespread uptake of tracking technologies which may be critical to their eventual success. 

The review recommends that the deployment of COVID-19 technologies should be subject to the sign-off of the GATE advisory body, which would consider the effectiveness of any tool within the context of diagnostic testing capacity and after an assessment of its likely adoption. GATE would also make recommendations about how to ensure technologies protect privacy by design and by default. 

Digital contact tracing

If a digital contact tracing application is approved, the Ada Lovelace Institute recommends the introduction of primary legislation to regulate data processing and to impose strict purpose, access and time limitations on its usewhich would also address concerns about other data-driven measures such as symptom trackingGiven the lack of evidence of effectiveness, the review concludes that installation of a digital contact tracing app should not be mandatory and that to make it so would likely fall foul of human rights standards.  

Digital immunity certification

The review also considered the evidence on digital immunity certification and concluded that while there is broad agreement that widespread testing is the only route through which the UK can exit the crisis, there is currently insufficient understanding of immunity, no robust scientific means of testing for immunity and therefore no credible basis for establishing a comprehensive regime of immunity certification at this time. 

In light of this, the Ada Lovelace Institute is calling for a comprehensive government strategy around immunity that considers the societal implications of any immunity certification regime. Should a credible scientific basis for immunity testing be established, then Government must introduce primary legislation stipulating when, why and under what conditions individuals are required to be tested for and disclose their immunity status, and preventing both public authorities and private companies from requesting or requiring disclosure of immunity status outside of defined circumstances.  

Carly Kind continued: ‘Bad uses of data and technology can do more harm than goodThey can obscure accurate analyses, hide abuses of power and exacerbate the position of people already suffering from digital exclusion, who – evidence is beginning to show  are the same people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. Premature deployment of a digital contact tracing app, which will ultimately rely on widespread public uptake to be effective, risks tarnishing public trust and confidence in technologies that could assist a transition out of the crisis. 

While we have seen that the public will support emergency or extreme measures that require curtailment of liberty or agency, or the increase of surveillance, if they appeal to a common sense of solidarity and are clearly justified for public good, there needs to be cast-iron ‘sunset’ clauses to dismantle any data tracking and surveillance architecture, as definitively and transparently as lifting restrictions on physical movement.’

Exit through the App Store? A rapid review of evidence on the technical considerations and societal implications of using technology to transition from the COVID-19 crisis was undertaken by the Ada Lovelace Institute with input from a range of experts in technology, law, philosophy, sociology and bioethics. It explores the legal, societal and technological impacts of certain data-driven technologies, in order to understand their ethics and their impact, with a particular eye on the societal impact of technologies on inequality and vulnerable groups.  

The rapid evidence review in summary

  • There is an absence of evidence to support the immediate national deployment of symptom tracking applications, digital contact tracing applications and digital immunity certificates. 
  • Effective deployment of technology to support the transition from the crisis will be contingent on public trust and confidence, which can be strengthened through the establishment of two accountability mechanisms: the Group of Advisors on Technology in Emergencies (GATE) to review evidence, advise on design and oversee implementation; and an independent oversight mechanism to conduct real-time scrutiny of policy formulation. 
  • Clear and comprehensive primary legislation should be advanced to regulate data processing in symptom tracking and digital contact tracing applications. Legislation should impose strict purpose, access and time limitations. 
  • Until a robust and credible means of immunity testing is developed, focus should be on developing a comprehensive strategy around immunity that considers the deep societal implications of any immunity certification regime, rather than on developing digital immunity certificates. Full and robust Parliamentary scrutiny and legislation will be crucial for any future regime of immunity testing and certification.  
  • Technical design choices should factor in privacy-by-design and accessibility features and should be buttressed by non-technical measures to account for digital exclusion. 

This report was authored by the Ada Lovelace Institute, with the assistance of Peter Wells. It is based on the input and advice of a range of experts who provided direct input, some of whom attended a virtual meeting on Tuesday 7 April 2020:

Tariq Khokhar, Head of Data for Science and Health, Wellcome Trust; Professor Dave ArchardEmeritus Professor, Queen’s University Belfast; Professor Lilian Edwards, Chair of Law, Innovation and Society, Newcastle Law School; Dr Marion Oswald, Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Fellow in Law at the University of Northumbria; Dr Edgar Whitley, Associate Professor of Information Systems, London School of Economics (LSE) ; Dr Alison Powell, Director JUST AI network, LSE; Dr Lina Dencik, Director of the Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University; Professor Pete FusseyResearch Director for the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project, University of EssexHelen Mountfield QC, Principal, Mansfield College; Professor Susan Michie, Director of UCL Centre for Behaviour Change; Jeni Tennison, CEO, Open Data Institute; Rachel Coldicutt; Dr Michael Veale, Lecturer in Digital Rights and Regulation, UCL; Dr Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Assistant Professor, Department of Media and Communications,  LSE; Orla Lynskey, Associate Professor of Law, LSE; Renate Samson, Open Data InstituteDr Nina PutnisNHS; Ravi Naik, Director, AWO.

The content and conclusions of this review briefing are not directly endorsed by the experts.