Tell us your secrets – it’s for your own good

Appy days: To be effective, the NHSX app needs to be downloaded by 35 million people.

Is loss of privacy a price worth paying? An app designed to trace the spread of Covid-19 launches, today, on the Isle of Wight. But will it make our personal details too easily available?

Milo Hsieh was fast asleep on a Sunday morning when the Taiwanese police came knocking. The student, who was in quarantine after returning from Europe, had no idea what they wanted. It soon became clear: his phone had run out of battery, so the authorities could not be sure of his location. It had taken less than 45 minutes for the police to arrive and check he was still in quarantine.

These measures were part of Taiwan’s “electronic fence” against the coronavirus. Across the world, governments have been using smartphone technology to combat the disease – and now Britain has joined them. Today, it is launching a contact-tracing app on the Isle of Wight, and hoping that at least half the island’s 80,000 households will download it.

The NHSX app uses Bluetooth technology. Whenever you spend 15 minutes within two metres of someone else who has downloaded it, your phones will swap electronic IDs. If you develop the coronavirus, this will be registered on an NHS database, which will then send an alert to everyone it knows you have met, telling them that they need to self-isolate in case they are infected.

The whole system is supposed to be anonymous, with nothing to reveal who a particular ID relates to, or who has been infected. But critics worry that it is not as carefully designed to protect your privacy as an equivalent app developed by Apple and Google, which keeps all the information inside your phone.

Because it sends data back to government-controlled servers, it might be possible for your ID to be decoded, creating a record of where you have been, who you have met, and whether you have been ill.

So concerned are some academics that 173 of them have signed an open letter, expressing the fear that the app could become “a tool that enables data collection on the population, or on targeted sections of society, for surveillance”. The Chinese are already using the virus as an excuse to increase surveillance, with a compulsory app that sends information directly to the police.

The UK government’s problem is that it needs at least 50% of the population to use the app for its contact-tracing strategy to work. And if people do not trust it with their data, they will not download it.

Is loss of privacy a price worth paying?

Spying on yourself

Some say that if the choice is between health and privacy, health is obviously more important. Privacy is an outdated idea anyway when people share everything about themselves on social media. Tracing someone’s activity through their phone is already easy for experts – and will become easier as we share more information with apps. As long as you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.

Others argue that privacy is essential to our sense of identity and developing our ideas. The problem with Instagram and Facebook is that we cannot be our real selves: instead, we try to project an image which will impress others, and only voice opinions that we think will have others’ approval. Privacy is the mark of a civilised society and should not be surrendered under any circumstances.

You Decide

  1. Would you accept a new smartphone as a present if you knew someone was watching everything you did with it?
  2. Imagine that you are a psychotherapist with a potentially violent patient who has a grudge against a politician. Should you tell the police, despite your duty of confidentiality?


  1. Come up with an idea for an app that would make life easier during the pandemic. Think of a name for it and design a logo. Then write a one-page letter to the PM, arguing why the government should back it.
  2. Imagine that you are the health secretary. Write a two-page speech explaining why everyone should download the NHSX app. Deliver the speech to your family and get them to ask you questions about it.

Some People Say...

“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), US politician and inventor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The NHS has a poor record when it comes to computers which handle large quantities of data. In 2013, a project to upgrade its IT system was abandoned at a cost of almost £10 billion. In 2017, hackers put 200,000 of its computers out of action in an attempt to extort money, and thousands of staff had their details stolen in a separate cyber attack.
What do we not know?
How close George Orwell’s novel 1984 is to becoming a reality. Orwell imagined a society in which everyone is kept under surveillance; he emphasised that totalitarian governments want people not only to obey the law, but to think in an approved way. The Chinese government’s policy of tracking people through facial-recognition technology – and sending thousands of Uighurs to be indoctrinated in detention centres – makes the book seem very prophetic.

Word Watch

After communist forces won control of China in 1949, their nationalist opponents retreated to the island of Taiwan and set up an independent state. But China still claims Taiwan as part of its territory, and forced Gap to apologise when the clothing company sold a T-shirt with a map of China that did not include Taiwan.
The process of tracing everyone who has been in contact with someone suffering from the virus. The government plans to hire 18,000 people to carry it out, but critics say it is pointless because the virus is already so widespread.
Isle of Wight
The largest English island. It was privately owned until 1293, when Countess Isabella de Fortibus sold it to Edward I on her deathbed.
Not associated with an identifiable person. It means “without a name”, but has also been used as a name by a group of hackers who launch cyber attacks on people it considers evil.
Teachers or scholars in a university. The term comes from Akademia, the name of an olive grove near Athens where the philosopher Plato taught his students.
The monitoring of behaviour, activities, or information for the purpose of influencing, managing or directing. The Chinese app is designed to stop people going into public places, especially if they are supposed to be in quarantine.

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