Over the past 50 years, British citizens have experienced a tremendous shift in their relationship with their government. In contrast to previous eras of citizen-government relationship, today’s citizens are more likely to encounter public services just as they need them than at other points in history.
In addition to being available 24/7, online services mean that you can now find help for your GP any time of the day and from anywhere in the world. However, some require a great deal more effort on behalf of citizens than others – this includes using your bank account information or learning how to use a passport. This is a concern because it can easily be abused, which means that you could lose your sense of privacy.
How the NHS app works for Covid-19 users
For Covid-19 passport holders, their first encounter with the NHS (National Health Service) app is, in itself, an intrusion by the government. After all, this app does not have any user manual – so new users are being put under pressure to accept terms and conditions at the start of their experience. As you would expect from a medical service of such importance, the first page of terms and conditions includes information about your GP appointments which you will want to keep confidential; but what is not explicitly stated is that the government stores your contact details.
Once you have accepted terms and conditions, you are then brought to the app’s main screen, where you can find a list of all of your GP’s appointments.
As with most government apps, this is not an instant search tool: it requires a double-click on the appointment in order to start looking through your notes. This first click is an intrusion by the government into your private life. The next click, however, is where things get more invasive. This second double-click takes you into your personal data section, where the NHS has copied out your sensitive information from another service – in this case, your passport data.
Once inside the search engine, you are faced with a wall of text and unreadable numbers. There is no option for you to scan information into your passport or directly add it to your medical records at the click of a button. Instead, there is a long and laborious process of copying data in by hand.
It’s clear from this particular example that we’ve been heading towards an intrusive society for some time now, but it’s not limited to just the NHS app. It is, in fact, a trend that is taking place with increasing frequency across the entire British government. With the rise of so-called ‘digital assistants’, any interaction you have with government officials will inevitably be one that involves you providing more and more personal information. It is not long till these visible changes ripple down into other health services such as optometry and even maybe social settings.
This may seem like a minor privacy concern; however, it’s important to remember that this information will almost certainly be passed along to other government officials who will look at your data when trying to identify you and see better insights concerning the population as a whole entity whereby they can pick up on trends.
The NHS App for Covid-19 Passport can be downloaded free from the Google Play Store, but it seems that those who download the app could be facing some unwanted personal questions.
Once downloaded, users are asked to fill out personal information expressly for the app. This includes your age, gender, and a few other pieces of information, which is then stored by Covid-19 International Software Ltd., an Israeli digital health company.
This information will be used to show advertising on various mobile devices where the NHS App is available. Covid-19’s Marketing Director explained his motives were “to give our users relevant content in return for their engagement. This helps create a better NHS experience for users.”
If you do not want your personal information to be sold, you can easily disable the NHS App by pressing the ‘X’ button after clicking on “Allow” on the provided screen.
Why do governments want data that identifies you?
In order to make use of digital services, citizens need to provide detailed information in order to log on. Many government services, including GP appointments, require identification which in turn allows access to other services, for example, healthcare. The NHS App for Covid-19 Passport is an example of the pressure placed on users by the government. This in turn can highlight not only personalised data, but the way in which users are using the app.
How long are these records held?
Covid-19 will also sell your personal information to insurance companies. The NHS App has the capability to track your location, which is only limited to where you have placed it on your smartphone. According to the Covid-19 Marketing Director: “We do not store GPS locations, but users can enable this feature and allow us to collect their GPS locations.”
Why should I care?
The NHS is a significant service in today’s world. By giving up this information, you are implicitly allowing that sensitive information to be stored on someone else’s computer or server. Should their servers be hacked, the information that you provided could be accessed by others and used maliciously or sold to third parties.
However, on the flip side, there can be some advantages to allowing the NHS access to your information in this way. Firstly, when urgent medical care is required on site, there is a chance data from the app could become of use.
Although it could seem intrusive, in retrospect having the information at the fingertips of someone who is not a medical professional but has some knowledge could well in fact help to save a life in a rare but possible situation.