Britain has long championed noble ideas about policing by consent and the ability to do anything you like, providing it has not been specifically outlawed. In keeping with such traditions, we have resisted the kind of national identity cards that are fairly common elsewhere. “Papers please” is a phrase most closely associated with films about the Nazi occupation of Europe or life under a Communist dictatorship.
So, while this newspaper supports the use of a tracking app as a tool to tackle the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, Nicola Sturgeon is right to be “cautious”.
The voluntary app uses a Bluetooth signal to detect nearby smartphones and, if a person starts to show symptoms, they can use it to alert people they have been close to recently – providing they have the app – so they can self-isolate. The system is anonymous so people wouldn’t necessarily know who they were alerting. This is perhaps the best part of this system – it is able to tell those you would normally have no way of contacting that they may have been exposed.
In other countries, like South Korea, tracking apps have been compulsory, even alerting the authorities if someone leaves their home. It is extremely unlikely that the public in this country would agree to this level of intrusion, so making the app voluntary is a good idea. But, if the public is to volunteer in large enough numbers, they will need to be confident the app will work in the way intended and will not be used for any other purpose.
So the developers will have to be transparent about the software involved, so that it can be assessed by independent experts and monitored by civil liberty groups, MPs and others concerned with protecting our liberty.
The tracking app is very different to an ID card, but just as people in the Second World War accepted the latter was necessary then, many will accept such a system is necessary for the duration of this crisis, particularly as it should help businesses re-open more quickly than they would be able to otherwise.
But there is a danger politicians and others might start to become excited about the potential of such tracking apps for dealing with other problems. They should not do so.
The state has many useful jobs to do, but tracking free citizens going about their lawful business should not normally be one of them, however carefully it is done.