Open Letter: Contact Tracking and NHSX

As responsible technologists, we call upon the NHSX leadership and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure new technologies used in the suppression of Coronavirus follow ethical best practice

Global map showing the spread of Coronavirus in shades of red
By Raphaël Dunant — Own work, data from 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic, List of countries and dependencies by population and Coronavirus map: The COVID-19 virus is spreading across the world, CC BY 4.0,
  1. Introduce bold emergency governance measures, including privacy and rights impact assessments and the drafting of an expert governance panel, with public and patient participation, to ensure innovation works and is held to account
  2. Develop collective mechanisms for social license, to balance the needs of individuals and the benefit to society, ensuring the communities and groups affected by data collection have a say, and publish clear terms and conditions for any new applications, following in the footsteps of the Singapore government app TraceTogether.

Too much, too late

Contact tracking is unlikely to be effective in a country where not everyone has a mobile phone, and where many people live in shared accommodation — not everyone who carries the virus can or will be tracked, and cell recognition is not good enough to differentiate between people who, for instance, live in a single block of flats. Not only does this kind of surveillance risk contravening human rights, but it is not guaranteed to work — particularly at this stage of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Testing times, do not call for untested new technologies.

These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies. Ethical data-driven decision-making requires good governance, transparency and willingness to course correct. We ask that the CEO of NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care prioritise putting the best practices outlined here at the heart of how new technologies are delivered by NHSX, for the good of everyone in the United Kingdom.


Rachel Coldicutt

Feminist. Responsible technologist. Reading and writing on equality, automation and climate crisis. On sabbatical-ish. Formerly @doteveryone .

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