Test and trace system to launch without app amid privacy fears

Victoria Ward
The test and trace scheme will be launched without the app - Department of Health & Social Care

A modified track and trace system to be announced this week will be entirely reliant on the public handing over key personal data to call centre workers, amid warnings it will prompt a slew of phishing scams.

The system will not involve the app but will instead require medical professionals to call those tested for coronavirus and ask them to provide the names and contact details of everyone they have spent any time with in previous days.

But privacy and data protection experts said it would need the public’s full confidence if they were to be expected to divulge such information to a stranger on the phone, warning that such trust was currently lacking.

Ravi Naik, a solicitor and legal director of data rights agency AWO, said: “The trust element issue is critical if this is to work but the whole process has been so haphazard and underhand that there is not much there.

“It’s about transparency - who will be able to access the data, what check and balances will there be? So far, the answers have been opaque.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office warned of growing numbers of organisations using the pandemic to set up scams and target the vulnerable, while the Financial Conduct Authority urged the public to be vigilant as “unscrupulous operators” use new phishing methods. 

The entire process has been mired in controversy, with ministers initially promising the track and trace app would be rolled out across the UK by mid-May before Boris Johnson vowed that a "world-beating" system would be in place by June 1.

But the technology has been beset by problems and the ongoing trial on the Isle of Wight has not gone to plan.

A team of developers is attempting to iron out a range of issues, including a problem with the core algorithm, which will determine who to alert if somebody reports feeling unwell.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is expected to announce a watered down version of the scheme on Thursday, with the word “track” abandoned in favour of “test, and trace.”

A DHSC spokesman said that anyone who tests positive will be asked to provide information about people with whom they have come into close, recent contact. 

“The Test and Trace service, which includes dedicated contact tracing staff, public health experts and digital technology, will swiftly get in touch with anyone considered to be at heightened risk of having been exposed to the virus and advise them on the steps they need to take to stop the spread of coronavirus and protect their families, friends, neighbours and work colleagues. 

“Everyone needs to play their part in this effort and follow the advice.”

Baroness Ros Altmann, the former pensions minister and personal finance expert, said: “I would be very concerned about the security around giving out phone numbers. These cold calls will be the route of so many scams.

“The Government will need to explain what people can do to check this is a bona fide call and explain how they can be sure their details will not be sold. 

“I do not see why the person who is tested cannot contact their friends and colleagues themselves, which is more liberal democracy than intrusive state.”

Ms Altmann said the UK was particularly prone to cold calling and phishing scams because of its sophisticated private investment network and more widespread banking system.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said there were growing concerns about phishing scams with many organisations using the opportunity to contact vulnerable people with unsolicited calls and texts.

A spokesperson said: “We expect organisations collecting personal information, including any health or testing data, to be transparent about why they are using it, what they will do with it and how individuals can exercise their information rights. 

“Organisations also need to keep people’s information secure, not keep it for longer than necessary and only use it for the original purpose during the Covid-19 pandemic.”