An “absence of evidence” to support the immediate deployment of a Covid-19 contact-tracing app risks “undermining public trust”, a research institute has warned.

The independent Ada Lovelace Institute has published a rapid review of the technical, social and public health evidence for contact-tracing apps, finding the current “technical limitations” and “social impacts” outweigh the potential benefits of an app.

To avoid the loss of public trust, the institute called for the introduction of legislation to regulate the development of apps and data processing, including strict purpose access to data and time limitations on its use.

Deployment of technologies should be subject to sign-off from a new Group of Advisors on Technology in Emergencies (GATE), established to oversee the development and testing of any digital tracing application, the review said.

The review found: “The rapid review finds that NHS plans to use technology to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 will not be effective unless the Government takes action to address the technical limitations, barriers to effective deployment and social impacts of the technology.

“Premature deployment of ineffective apps could undermine public trust and confidence in the long-term, hampering the widespread uptake of tracking technologies which may be critical to their eventual success.”

Given the lack of evidence, the review warned making use of the technology mandatory would “likely fall foul of the human rights standards”.

NHSX is set to trial a Covid-19 contact-tracing app in the North of England, but has remained tight-lipped about how the app will work and when they expect the pilot to be rolled-out across the country.

Privacy group medConfidential has called on the organisation to be “upfront” about their plans for the app and how it will be used. A call that was echoed in the independent review.

“Government must be transparent about the technical solutions under development. Technological solutions must complement, rather than replace, ongoing public health surveillance and pandemic response initiatives,” it found.

“They must be grounded in a comprehensive strategy for the UK’s transition out of the crisis, for which Government should develop, publish and invite public scrutiny.”

Carly Kind, director of the Ada Lovelace Institute, said: “Bad uses of data and technology can do more harm than good. They can obscure accurate analyses, hide abuses of power and exacerbate the position of people already suffering from digital exclusion, who – evidence is beginning to show – are the same people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19.

“Premature deployment of a digital contact tracing app, which will ultimately rely on widespread public uptake to be effective, risks tarnishing public trust and confidence in technologies that could assist a transition out of the crisis.

“While we have seen that the public will support emergency or extreme measures that require curtailment of liberty or agency, or the increase of surveillance, if they appeal to a common sense of solidarity and are clearly justified for public good, there needs to be cast-iron ‘sunset’ clauses to dismantle any data tracking and surveillance architecture, as definitively and transparently as lifting restrictions on physical movement.”

Digital immunity certificates

The review also examined the evidence for digital immunity certificates, again finding a lack of evidence to support their introduction.

It found while there is “broad agreement” that widespread testing is the only route through which the UK can exit the crisis, “there is currently insufficient understanding of immunity, no robust scientific means of testing for immunity and therefore no credible basis for establishing a comprehensive regime of immunity certification at this time”.

The institute called for a comprehensive government strategy around immunity that takes into account the social implications of any certification, including when, why and under what conditions individuals are required to be tested for and disclose their immunity status.

“It may lead to arbitrary and unfair restrictions on individuals’ access to transport, services, employment, movement and other rights and freedoms on the basis of their immunity status,” the report found.

“Discrimination and stigmatisation may become commonplace if immunity becomes an element of identity as we transition from the crisis. The public will need to trust and support any government strategy that centres on immunity certification.”

Public authorities and private companies should be prevented from requesting or requiring disclosure of immunity status outside of defined circumstances, it added.

NHSX has been contacted for comment.