UK biometrics chief comments on Covid-19 apps
21 April 2020 16:48 GMT

The UK biometrics commissioner has been approached by a number of journalists asking for comments on the possible use of symptom tracking applications, digital contact tracing applications and digital immunity certificates.

Professor Paul Wiles said that strictly speaking this is not part of my responsibility since his role is limited to the police use of biometrics both for criminal investigation and national security. However, he said the possible use of phone applications to track coronavirus (COVID-19) is a form of surveillance more normally associated with policing and could have a policing purpose, albeit one connected to controlling a pandemic.

"In that sense the way in which the police use of biometrics has been regulated may hold some lessons".

"The first question about any public use of biometrics for surveillance is: is there a public interest in doing so? That is, not a private interest but one that benefits the society and its citizens to such an extent as to outweigh any intrusion into an individual’s general right to privacy. Such questions are of such significance that they should be decided by Parliament and enshrined in law, as was the case for the police use of DNA and fingerprints in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (PoFA).

"Given the general and public threat from coronavirus such a public interest test may well be accepted in this case. However, unless we believe that the coronavirus threat is permanent (and at present we do not know) then it may be that the public interest test is only passed for so long as the threat remains. That means that public surveillance to try and control coronavirus probably should be regarded as time limited and should be included in emergency legislation. Parliament certainly acted in this manner when it passed the Coronavirus Act 2020 which, in part, suspended some aspects of PoFA in response to the health emergency. It did so by insisting that the emergency provision had to be limited initially to 6 months and the relevant regulations made in consultation with the Biometrics Commissioner."

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