face mask leper bell
© Global Look Press / Heritage-Images; Global Look Press / Keystone / Steve Taylor
(L) Leper woman with a bell, 14th century; (R) A man wearing a face mask views his mobile phone in central London
The NHS is set to launch an opt-in contact tracking app to help stop the spread of the coronavirus at the end of the quarantine, in a first sign that the unprecedented controls could be here to stay.

The NHS is planning to launch a coronavirus contact tracking app to help slow the spread of the disease through the population. It is reportedly planned for launch just before or just after the end of the lockdown, and is being modelled on TraceTogether, a Bluetooth based-app used in Singapore to curb the country's Covid-19 spread. The idea behind this very 21st century way of keeping tabs on the health of the nation is for patients to upload their diagnostic data to the app. It will then communicate via Bluetooth with other nearby phones. If someone in the vicinity has tested positive for the disease then, after a short delay, those within an as yet to be revealed radius will be notified that they have been near someone with Covid-19.

Apparently after confining people to their homes, banning more than two people congregating outside, closing down all pubs, clubs, gyms, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, and virtually all other businesses, the government next wants to broadcast your medical status to anyone you happen to wander past. The app will be released either just before or just after the government lifts the lockdown and the NHS is hoping that at least 50 percent of the public download it. So it appears that as a trade-off for allowing us back outside we will all be encouraged to download some sort of digital leper bell alerting all those around us that we are "unclean."

True, the app will not be mandatory and run on an opt-in basis, but it is certainly going to be pushed hard by government advertising in an attempt to socially pressure people into downloading the software. Can we really countenance such measures? The government and NHSX, NHS England's innovation arm, are appointing an ethics board to oversee the project but just how impartial can we expect them to be?

The fears around the coronavirus pandemic have already led the British government to enforce measures never seen before in living memory. Police are flying drones over the Peak District shaming people going for walks, shops are being told not to stock Easter eggs as they are "non-essential items," socialising has essentially been banned, people are being stopped from going to work and now people are being asked to share their medical data with total strangers. Abolishing our hard-won liberties is bad enough, encouraging people to divulge their medical status shows a wanton disregard for privacy.

As a country we are running a very real risk of giving up far too much in a fit of hysteria. What happens with this data after the virus is over? How securely is it stored? Can the promised anonymity be guaranteed? As a result of the internet people have got used to handing over data for the sake of convenience, but we shouldn't get complacent about divulging sensitive information. The eagerness of police to flex their new authoritarian muscles should give everyone pause for thought before the rush to engage in the next initiative that comes along in the name of public health.

True some countries are going further with their phone-based contact tracing. Israel passed emergency laws allowing its spy agency to tap into people's phones without a warrant while South Korea is broadcasting alerts with patients' age, gender, and last location. Nevertheless the fact some other places are being more invasive shouldn't give the British government a free pass.

Fortunately, some sensible people have already voiced concerns about the development of any such app for the NHS. Last week a group of "responsible technologists" wrote an open letter to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock and NHSX CEO Matthew Gould warning that the app could be used as a "means of social control."

The letter, signed by a raft of university professors, tech journalists and web activists, said: "Contact tracking has been a successful factor in suppressing coronavirus in South Korea, but those technologies and the South Korean social and political context cannot be reproduced in the UK.

Information published by Oxford BDI and SAGE indicates that any digital contact-tracking app will instantly trace (and perhaps identify) individuals who are exposed to someone who has tested positive to coronavirus."

Initial signs from the development process also don't show much cause for confidence in the security of the scheme. Sky News reported that a source who witnessed some of the work on the app described it as a "hot mess" with "no clear voices in the room speaking to the privacy implications of the technology they were using."

As a nation we need to be careful to not give up too much in the battle against coronavirus. Yes, it is a serious problem that should be taken seriously, but the draconian measures taken to deal with it are in themselves a problem. Aside from it being an extraordinary act of economic self-harm, they set a dangerous precedent in allowing the government to curtail freedom in the name of safety. We must be ever vigilant not to cede the rights we have come to take for granted, regardless of the motives behind taking them away.
Guy Birchall is British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online.