Covid-19: Civil Liberties

Attorney General – in the House of Commons on 28th April 2020.

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Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the effect of the covid-19 contact tracing app on civil liberties.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be here and to see you—virtually or otherwise.

Her Majesty’s Government are actively considering a range of further options for managing the effect of the outbreak of covid-19. A careful assessment of any implications for civil liberties, including the impact on human rights, equality and privacy, will be an important part of these considerations.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I welcome the Government’s new focus on testing, tracing and containing the coronavirus, and I believe that the NHS contact tracing app has an important role to play. However, does the Attorney General agree that the legal basis for processing personal data by such an app should be set out in legislation and that this should include a measure that ensures the app stores data in a decentralised manner?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentlemen is supportive of the contact tracing app. It is very important because everyone will benefit from the app. If enough people with smartphones download it, it will help stop the spread, slow the epidemic, and protect the NHS. I can assure him and others that the app will be for voluntary participation only. There will be no private identifiable information on it. The whole process will be compliant with data protection and there will be an ethical advisory board monitoring it.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Solicitor General

We support the development of the app, which could be central to the lifting of the lockdown.  However, to be effective it would require more than 60% of the population to sign up, and achieving that would require trust from the public. Will the Solicitor General confirm that the legal basis for processing data under the app will be set out in primary legislation? Will he also confirm that any measures will be compliant with the general data protection regulation, both now and after the Brexit transition period?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. Stakeholder engagement in this matter has been crucial, and continues to be. We have been consulting not only the ethics advisory board for the app, which is chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, but the Information Commissioner, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the National Data Guardian and many others. Trust is important—it always is—but this app is from NHSX, the tech arm of the NHS, and in this country we trust our NHS with our data. The app is going to be heavily protected and I am confident that it will be very popular.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

The Information Commissioner has said that the

“starting point for contact tracing should be decentralised systems that look to shift processing on to individuals’
devices where possible.”

Why have the Government apparently gone against that advice and reportedly opted for a significant centralised data-gathering system, with all the challenges and risks that that brings?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Solicitor-General

The app is being developed with expert assistance from a plethora of different sources. Data on the app will not be held any longer than is absolutely necessary, and civil liberties and the privacy of information are absolutely crucial to the development of the app. We want people to trust it and to use it—it is going to be important to protect the NHS and to save lives—so every single mechanism we have will be utilised to protect the privacy of data.