Much more info needed on how public health identities might work: Ada Lovelace Institute

Much more info needed on how public health identities might work: Ada Lovelace Institute

A UK technology research firm and think tank says it is putting a proposed public health identity under its microscope. The Ada Lovelace Institute sees too many unanswered questions in the biometrics-enabled idea, and wants to help society decide its fate.

The institute, named after the famed 19th century mathematician and computing pioneer, aims to ensure data and artificial intelligence are net benefits to society. Members work to foster technological and societal conditions needed to achieve that goal.

In a direct and concise project mission statement, the institute starts with a blunt premise:

“The risk that COVID-19 poses to individuals and society has suspended the usual balance of rights and freedoms, justifying an incursion on liberty and curtailment of rights for the sake of public safety.”

In a surprise to some reading that perspective, the document does not go on to warn of real and imagined dangers that public health identities might pose. Instead, the unsigned statement proposes rigorous research and robust debate among its staff.

A position paper would result from the endeavor. No deadline has been set for conclusions.

The institute defines public health identity as “a system for verifiably sharing private health data relevant to public health concerns.” The system could include digital immunity certificates or a health status application showing a person’s health status or relationship to COVID-19.

Institute officials say having ready access to one’s health data could become something required of most or all people. Employers and airlines, for example, might have an existential interest in a person’s health status and chance of transmission.

COVID-19 has prompted some governments to begin developing public health identity infrastructure, including the UK, China, Germany and Chile. The Lovelace Institute says the nations are joined by global business consulting companies PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young, all involved in separate efforts.

The document spells out three “sociotechnical” issues that builders of public health identity systems will need to address:

Most important to the institute is loss of privacy that the required biometric system inevitably would impose. Along with that are “the power and permanence of the information, the safety and security issues” and their still only loosely defined future implications.

As if on cue came news in mid-May that someone with the UK’s National Health Service had left “sensitive” information not for public distribution about how its tracing app might begin showing app owners’ COVID-19 health status unprotected.

Second in the list are the issues inherent in sharing health data, according to the document. Last are the inequalities that have always intersected with health status.

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