• AI and data research institute says there is “urgent need” to assess efficacy of digital contact tracing app
  • Warns app currently under development by NHS have “significant” limitations and social risks
  • Calls for new technology advisory group to be set up to work along SAGE

The “significant technical limitations” and “deep social risks” of digital contact tracing currently outweigh its value as part of the coronavirus crisis response, an independent research institute has warned.

The Ada Lovelace Institute has today published a rapid review of the evidence on the technical considerations and societal implications of using technology to transition from the covid-19 crisis.

HSJ revealed last month that NHSX — part of the Department of Health and Social Care — was working on a contact tracing app, and it continues to be pursued by government as part of plans for exiting current lockdown measures.

Although the Exit through the App Store review found the government was right to explore non-clinical measures in its attempt to relax some level of controls currently in place, it said there was an “urgent need” to assess the “efficacy and impact” of digital contact tracing applications presently under development by the NHS.

“Overcoming these limitations and risks is not impossible but will require, at a minimum, that government establishes a multidisciplinary Group of Advisors on Technology in Emergencies (GATE) to stand alongside the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) and act as gatekeepers of the deployment of technologies,” the report said.

However, it stressed lockdown is also giving rise to direct health risks as well as secondary harms caused by a deep recession and acknowledged there are “very real societal risks on both sides”.

The Ada Lovelace Institute’s research also suggested digital contract tracing would only become an effective tool if it has “public buy-in”.

“Efforts to increase the ubiquity of digital contact tracing apps, including through mandating their use, could have the opposite effect, undermining public trust and confidence in government and even provoking civil disobedience,” it said.

The research also found immunity certification should not be rolled out until accurate and reliable immunity tests exist and there is a better understanding of the longevity of immunity.

It said if scientific evidence makes policy built around immunity testing feasible, secure digital immunity certification may be feasible, but this comes with “high risks” around social cohesion, discrimination and exclusion.

The report also found:

  • The government should advance primary legislation to bolster any deployment of digital contact tracing apps and require them to delete personal data after the crisis
  • It called for “cast iron ‘sunset’ clauses” to dismantle any data tracking and surveillance architecture as definitively and transparently as lifting restrictions on physical movement
  • Government must lay out in primary legislation stipulating when, why and under what conditions individuals are required to be tested for and disclose their immunity status
  • Government must establish an independent oversight mechanism to conduct real-time scrutiny of policy formulation 

 ‘More harm than good’

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.”

“Bad uses of data and technology can do more harm than good. They 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,” Ms Kind added.

“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,” she said.