< Back to Blog

Would you be happy to play your part in defeating COVID-19?

May 20, 2024 by Alistair Enser

Last week we spoke about how technology is the glue keeping organisations together, but the elephants in the room during any conversation about technology are civil liberties, privacy and data protection. It’s important that we talk about these subjects, because they have a significant impact on the use and type of technology that may be considered acceptable. Are we short of ideas and solutions – or are we blocking ourselves from using them?

Tiers for fears

Last week the Government introduced three tiers of lockdown, and designated large parts of the North West and North East as tier three, despite the efforts of local government to hold out. The closures that tier three necessitate look set to create significant economic damage, at a time when many businesses were just reopening.

Separately, we are seeing contradictory data around the NHS COVID-19 App, with false alerts being sent and questions as to whether the app can ever work as intended. Whilst on the one hand there have been reports that the track and trace is getting overwhelmed and may not be effective when a large number of people are infected, a recent report in the Lancet suggests otherwise. It claims that the use of track and trace and the app in the Isle of Wight successfully enforced behaviour and became a deterrent in itself, encouraging people to do the right thing and help keep the infection at bay.

Getting a grip

While the jury is still out, it’s clear that we need to get a grip on the pandemic, and fast. Doing nothing doesn’t seem a sensible option, looking at the infection and mortality rates. Conversely, if we lockdown large parts of the country there will be severe economic impact, and a physical and mental health crisis may emerge anyway, as a result.

We therefore owe it to ourselves to look again at technology that encourages people to do the right thing and be sensible. To do so, it’s time we had a grown-up conversation about privacy, one of the reasons why widespread tracking – using technology may be unpopular.

Most of us would not want to live in a surveillance state by default, or by design, but there are technology solutions that could potentially help us right now. In a similar vein to how Reliance High-Tech often repurposes existing technology to provide innovative security solutions, there are existing technologies available that may well assist the COVID-19 effort.

If local lockdowns are to be adopted should we be looking at how mobile phone technology and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) could be used to minimise unnecessary travel between areas where the infection rates are high and where it remains low? This might go some way in addressing the problem that less than 20% of people stay home and self-isolate when required to do so, according to a recent Department of Health and Social Care survey.

For example, it is hypothetically possible to geofence an area under tier three lockdown by locating it within mobile phone mast locations. If a user enters or leaves that location, they could receive an automated text message reminding them of any travel limitations, asking them to consider whether their journey is essential, and ask if they are permitted to leave.

Another approach  might be to use ANPR to check vehicles against the DVLA database and advise drivers if their vehicle is recognised entering or leaving a risk area, such as  going over the Severn Bridge into Wales – where travellers are asked to avoid due to the risk of carrying the infection. The system could advise drivers if they are entering an area of higher infection than the area where their vehicle is registered.

Respecting privacy and reducing infection

Of course, their journey may be legitimate: they could be a key worker, for example. And I am not suggesting that this system would or even should be enforced or monitored by the Police. Perhaps the simple act of notification  and recognition may act as a polite reminder and deterrent. But would it be legal? In a word, Yes. In March the U.K.’s data and privacy authority, the Information Commissioner’s Office, confirmed that the government could use mobile phone data to fight the spread of COVID-19. A spokesperson said that “data protection is not a barrier to sharing data—to protect against serious threats to public health. Data protection law enables the data sharing in the public interest and provides the safeguards for data that the public would expect.” That said, it presupposes a conclusion on  the ‘thorny issue’ of whether firebreaks and lockdowns are actually effective.

I was interested to read this article by an industry peer the other day, and for me, it’s interesting that the system I outline here touches on a number of the key trends that the author, Neil Killick of Milestone Systems, describes. It applies analytics, involves real time situational awareness, informs the user as a result and of course needs to address any privacy concerns.

So, if the system was legal under data privacy rules, if it was automated and didn’t send reports to the police, would you support such as approach? If the system I describe educated, advised and warned people about their responsibilities and any travel restrictions, could it help keep infection rates down?

I would be interested in your opinion, so please take the quick survey I have posted alongside this article!

Stay safe.