Contact tracing is going to become an inevitable reality as the world leaves lockdown. But, the longterm human rights implications of that for LGBT people and minorities could be “incredible,” experts are warning.
For LGBT people in South Korea linked to a recent outbreak, and gay Ugandans facing persecution under the guise of COVID-19 rules–this has already become a reality.
The danger comes down to plans by some countries, including for the U.K.’s NHS app, to pursue a centralised, instead of a decentralised app.
“If even Google is telling you this data set is going to be too powerful, you should pay attention,” Kyle Taylor, of Fair Vote U.K. tells me.
This “incredible” powerhouse data set that Taylor describes is of plans for the NHS’s centralised COVID-19′ Track And Trace’ app.
Decentralised designs instead work a little like blockchain technology. Meaning no single device ever has all of the data needed to decode it – while still effectively giving you exposure notifications.
But currently, the U.K.’s contact tracing plans will mean all information in the app will be held by the U.K.–and therefore by the government.
Although the U.K. government says this will be anonymous and that you can ask for your data to be deleted, Taylor says that because of the nature of the centralised design, this data set could be reverse engineered to relink historical data to users.
“We may have protections now, but human rights can be eroded quickly. If a centralised server becomes a reality and retains information–potentially forever–it could be used by a later government who aren’t as friendly towards LGBT people.”
Plans have already been leaked by Wired, for a ramping up of the kind of data the app hopes to get from the U.K. population, which echo China’s post-lockdown measures.
The debate on the right approach to contact tracing is raging. The likes of the U.K., France and Australia, are facing calls to follow in the steps of Germany, and reverse plans for a centralised app and use a decentralised app, like the one built by Google and Apple.
While Isreal and China are going even further, they are actively eroding privacy rights by enforcing tracing. Isreal’s counter-terrorism technology is controlling their epidemic, and their population, with mass surveillance techniques.
The Fair Vote U.K. democracy advocate Kyle Taylor’s advice to LGBT people and minorities on the current U.K. plans is simple:
“We should simply not accept a centralised app. If you want to know if you should worry about these plans? Let me tell you now, this is bad.”
Could homophobia hamper the U.K.’s contact tracing plans, like it has in South Korea?
For LGBT people, the HIV epidemic, still raw to many in the community, is an all too cautionary tale of the dangers of an epidemic on already rising levels of prejudice.
“The danger for LGBT people is linked in particular to the parallels of the HIV epidemic. That, wrong and prejudiced idea, that ‘gay people are responsible for viruses’–that is still prominent in the majority,” Taylor tells me.
You only need to look to South Korea’s recent ‘cluster’ outbreak to see how quickly homophobia can creep back in.
A large majority of the spike in infections were linked to several Seoul nightclubs and bars, many of them catering to the LGBT+ community, Openly reports.
Being LGBT is a taboo in the country, so when the country’s biggest outbreak in weeks was linked to a gay bar–homophobia threatened to hamper South Korea’s coronavirus campaign.
When the outbreak was reported by a local Christian newspaper, a slew of anti-gay comments followed.
While there have been no reports of hate crimes or physical attacks linked to this fresh surge of homophobia, local activists say “anxiety and fear have flared” in the LGBT community, says the Japanese Times.
While in Uganda, police are already using coronavirus laws to target marginalised LGBT groups, who recently raided an LGBT homeless shelter, Sky News report.
Contact tracing is already a reality for some members of the U.K. LGBT community
One form of contact tracing is already happening in some parts of the LGBT community, to trace STI infections.
The current STI system relies on you either informing your hookups and sexual partners of an infection – or passing their contact information onto a health advisor for them to do it, anonymously, on your behalf.
“Just as our community already voluntarily opts-in for tracing sexual partners following a positive STI test, the ‘NHS contact tracing app’ relies on reporting, as the app will not be able to diagnose COVID- 19 symptoms,” Barrister Dr Chelvan, No5 Barristers’ Chambers, tells me.
“Instead of primarily relying on the individual, a centralised system with ‘trained teams’ will be used.
“Yes, there will be a record of those who are tracked through the app, and the legal ramifications relating to cybersecurity, privacy rights and the State, are yet to be fully scrutinised by the experts, let alone litigated.”
Should we accept the NHS’s centralised ‘Track and Trace’ app plans?
Contact tracing is widely accepted as an important part of the road out of lockdown. There is a near universal acceptance across U.K. political parties that it will have to happen in some form. But the way it does remains up for debate.
Crucially, under current NHS plans, it will take 80% of smartphone users, around 60% of the U.K. population, for it to be effective.
If human rights implications get in the way of people using the app, the whole process could be ineffective.
“Contact tracing is great in theory, but problematic in execution,” says Steve Wardlaw, a Lawyer who founded LGBT insurance firm Emerald Life.
“The idea of submitting your location and other sensitive material to a centralised system naturally raises a lot of concern for LGBT individuals. Many queer people need to safeguard their information about where they have been and who they interact with for their own protection.
“This, coupled with pre-existing anxieties around big data and its misuses, means that a large number of LGBT people simply won’t download the app.”
In these strange times, Dr Chelvan looks back to the HIV epidemic for guidance:
“We are living in exceptionally unusual times. But our community has been here before with the AIDS pandemic. We know how vital it is to stick together and support each other–to save lives.
“Unless we start checking-in with each other, we will have to wait for the vaccine, and for once, we as an LGBT+ community should be able to bring our lived experiences as a beacon of hope –that we can defeat the virus, and live our lives freely and openly.”
But Kyle Taylor, Fair Vote U.K. says he won’t be using any centralised based app, like the NHS’s Track and Trace:
“I wouldn’t use a centralised app, because there is no justification for it to be centralised.
“The thinking is, this will be the most incredible set of data imaginable. We already give too much to social media, our friends, what we like, and location data.
“Considering around every 14-21 days, you repeat the people and places you see; with the quality of data the NHS centralised app will gather, alongside social data–it means within three weeks you could map someone’s entire existence.
“No one should have that information except for you. It’s an extremely threatening data set and could be used to control and undermine us.”
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