UK Biometrics Commissioner discusses digital technology use in public coronavirus tracking
The use of symptom tracking, contact tracing applications, and digital immunity certificates to monitor and contain COVID-19 do not fall under the responsibility of UK’s Biometrics Commissioner due to the role’s limitation to the use of biometrics in law enforcement and national security, the official announced in a statement.
If phone applications are used, however, they could be considered a surveillance method linked to policing tactics, so it might be worth looking into how biometric technology has been regulated for use in law enforcement, according to the statement by Paul Wiles’ office. If biometrics are used for public surveillance, there has to be a public interest and benefit, not private, “to outweigh any intrusion into an individual’s general right to privacy,” writes the Biometrics Commissioner.
Similar to the decision about the use of DNA and fingerprints in criminal investigations stated in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (PoFA), the deployment of biometrics for public surveillance should be decided by Parliament and included in the law. Some amendments in PoFA have been suspended in the Coronavirus Act 2020 due to health emergency.
Considering the impact of coronavirus, the roll out may be subjected to a public interest test, and unless the virus becomes a permanent threat, public surveillance to contain coronavirus should be part of emergency legislation and for a limited time. In the case of the Coronavirus Act 2020, the measure was limited to six months.
A group of lawyers, academics and tech experts have drafted a suggested Coronavirus (Safeguards) Bill to ensure the timeframe is limited, regulate data sharing and protect a person’s right to not participate and remain anonymous. Research into the situation was also conducted by the Ada Lovelace Institute which emphasized the importance of legislation and the limited use of the technology in surveillance to protect citizens’ privacy in public life.
“The coronavirus emergency has highlighted the very rapid development of new biometric technology in general and its possible use by the State but also by private interests and why that is something that needs a new framework of governance backed by legislation,” concludes the Biometrics Commissioner.
More details can be reviewed in the Commissioner’s upcoming Annual Report 2019.