Information chief: Digital Covid status certificates must be built on trust

Elizabeth Denham warned any vaccine certification system for overseas travel must be trusted by the public for it to be a success.

Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham
Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham

Any scheme which uses digital certificates to prove a person’s coronavirus status would only be a success if the public is able to “trust” the way their data is used, the Information Commissioner has said.

The Government has said it is “considering” using the official NHS app as a digital route to allow holidaymakers to show they have been vaccinated and unlock overseas travel.

Speaking at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) Data Protection Practitioners’ annual conference, Elizabeth Denham said such a system can only work if the public is able to trust that their personal data was being used responsibly and their privacy protected.

“The success of any Covid-status scheme will rely on people trusting them, and that means people having confidence in how the scheme would use their personal information,” the Information Commissioner said.

“There is simply not an option today for any organisation, private or public sector, to say ‘how we use data is complex, this service is important, so just trust us’. That applies as much to Covid-status certificates as it does to social media companies or app developers.”

Ms Denham added that the subject of data privacy has now become mainstream, but with that increased interest and understanding has also come a growing concern from the public about how their data is being collected and used.

“That interest does come with a growing cynicism. A cynicism from customers who feel their information is being misused or monetised without their say. A mistrust of government innovations around data,” she said.

“That is a real concern. The obvious benefits of data-driven innovation, in both the public and private sectors, rely on trust. We’ve seen that clearly over the past year, from contact tracing apps to data sharing to help vulnerable people who are shielding.”

The current ban on foreign holidays is expected to be lifted for people in England from May 17 as part of the next easing of coronavirus restrictions, with officials looking into how travellers could display evidence that they have been vaccinated or recently tested.

Last week, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the NHS app was being looked at as a possible solution and that he was working “with partners across the world to make sure that system can be internationally recognised”.

The NHS app, not to be confused with the NHS Covid-19 app, is used to book medical appointments, order repeat prescriptions and already displays any vaccines a person has had.

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