How businesses were left to scramble over data collection for coronavirus contact tracing

A woman scanning a QR code to demonstrate contact-tracing
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Whether you’re keen to book a meal out or pick up a coffee on-the-go, it’s impossible to enjoy any of our regained freedoms without sacrificing personal data. With an effective NHS Test and Trace system and mobile phone app still well beyond reach, entrusting food and drink outlets with this information on a long-term basis has become a critical part of the ‘new normal’.

From 4 July, businesses across all sectors were charged with managing reams of customer data, with full guidance published only two days prior. This thrust them into the role of data controllers almost overnight, attached with the strict responsibilities set out under GDPR. “The problem with this started at the very beginning, and the initial guidance was incredibly vague,” Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer with Big Brother Watch, tells IT Pro.

While some companies, such as fast food chain outlets, may have been versed in data protection principles, smaller venues may have been concerned by the lack of sufficient guidance, Stone says. It’s no surprise, then, that dozens of third-party companies are waiting in the wings to collect contact tracing data on the behalf of those overwhelmed by the entire process.

“It's important to remember that it's pretty much every venue that you might go to,” she continues. “It's churches, places of worship, town halls, libraries, children's centres, cinemas, zoos, so it's a massive amount of businesses covered by this, and a lot of them will not have any experience in collecting this kind of data. So to [have given] them guidance two days before it's due to come out is really not acceptable.”

An invasion of privacy

In light of these extraordinary expectations, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) produced guidance for businesses anxious about the prospect of securely handling data in this way. For organisations with no experience in data collection, the ICO also created a five-step guide that outlines their roles and responsibilities in simple terms. Nevertheless, concerns around data breaches and privacy violations, forecast by organisations like Big Brother Watch, have sadly materialised, with the ICO suggesting it’s looking into a small number of cases that fall into this bracket.

One high-profile incident arose when a postgraduate student with Oxford University, Rose Lyddon, was contacted by a bartender using details she had left with a pub. Stone says it’s no surprise that abuses such as this are happening, with part of the problem being the absence of any Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) to which organisations can refer. It’s not just smaller businesses that can fall foul of this either. In July, the government admitted it hadn’t conducted any DPIA for its flagship NHS Test and Trace programme, which Stone describes as a “massive scandal”.

“The DPIA is basically the heart of data protection in any mission like this. It outlines what could go wrong and what they're going to do about it, and without that, the government and these organisations are really going in blind. It wasn’t surprising – and it was quite depressing – how quickly it happened,” she adds, referring to the case of Rose Lyddon. “I'm sure there are probably lots of other instances where that kind of thing is happening that we don't know about yet.”

The consequence, she believes, is that some people will feel they can’t trust their data to be kept securely and aren’t going to want to participate in the scheme, which will in turn affect their community's response to the pandemic.

For its part, the data regulator is seeking to assure the public that it’s generally safe for businesses to collect their data in such a way, with a spokesperson reiterating that the guidance it has issued should stand businesses in good stead. “We appreciate the challenge that many small businesses face in introducing unfamiliar arrangements at speed,” an ICO spokesperson tells IT Pro. “Our focus is on supporting and enabling them to handle people's data responsibly from the outset and, while we will act where we find serious, systemic or negligent behaviour, our aim is to help the thousands of businesses that are doing their best to do the right thing.”

Despite this, research from identity and access management firm Okta would seem to back up Stone’s intuition; the organisation found that 84% of people believe data collected for contact tracing will be used for purposes unrelated to efforts to tackle coronavirus. This has led to concerns that customers will provide false information, which would disrupt the entire contact tracing operation should an outbreak occur. Indeed, in Derbyshire at least, it seems this is already happening, with pub landlords in August criticising a “small minority” of customers who were discovered to have left false information following a minor COVID-19 outbreak.

Third party support

Research from TAAP found the most common method of data collection in venues is pen and paper, with 90% of venues adopting the old-fashioned method, based on a relatively small sample size of “more than 15”. The prevalence of pen and paper has been corroborated by IT Pro’s own research, although venues are increasingly seeking to adopt tech systems to support these efforts. Given the scale of the challenge for many businesses, especially those with no prior data collection experience, may look to third-party companies with a specialism in data collection for support. Those that do will find there are plenty of options available.

London-based has been working with Twilio, a communications-focused platform as a service (PaaS) provider, to bring an SMS-based system to venues for customer check-in, for example. Patrons text a six-digit code to a dedicated number and receive a response, which staff can then visually confirm prior to entry. Scottish company Eco, meanwhile, has developed a contactless system reliant on QR codes that not only allows customers to sign in for contact tracing but also access documents like food and drinks menus. This is similar to a system developed by Stampede, which is used in venues run by First Restaurant Group, that relies on either Wi-Fi registration or QR codes to collect and time-stamp customer details.


Enterprise data protection: A four-step plan

An interactive buyers’ guide and checklist


“We want to do right by our customers, reopen responsibly and provide the most normal and enjoyable experience possible,” operations director at First Restaurant Group & The Waterway restaurant, Oliver Etridge, tells IT Pro. “We’ve done a lot of research into how we can collect data securely, comply with government guidelines and support track and trace measures however we can. We found that the Stampede service was the best way of collecting data securely without infringing on the experience of our customers.”

As far as the ICO is concerned, it’s up to organisations to use whatever system best suits them. “It doesn’t have to be complicated, but whatever process they decide to use, they must take account of the basics - be transparent, only collect what you need, keep it secure, delete details and don’t use it for other things like direct marketing,” a spokesperson tells IT Pro.

These companies claim their technologies can reduce the lack of trust many may have when it comes to sacrificing their personal data. For Madeleine Stone, however, these same technologies give her greater cause for concern. “I think there absolutely is a risk [of organisations misusing the data for marketing purposes] and I think it's probably quite likely that it is happening,” she explains. “I'm sure that some companies are completely doing this by the book but there are probably a lot that aren't.

“It only takes one, one of these third-party apps to have a data breach, or to mishandle data, or to use it for marketing purposes, or to sell it on to someone else, and we have a serious issue for all those potentially hundreds of thousands of people who've put their data through this system.”

As far as the aforementioned companies are concerned, they claim their systems are fully compliant with data protection laws., for instance, holds data for the minimum 21-day period in an ‘escrow’, with only individual businesses able to access the contact details. Eco, meanwhile, says all personal data is fully encrypted on secure servers to ensure there are no breaches.

While such assurances are welcome, there’s still cause for unease given such data collection regimes are set to continue indefinitely until, at least, there are effective enough treatments and vaccines to allow life to continue as it was. Indeed, with government contact tracers themselves allegedly falling foul of data protection rules, according to the Times, it doesn’t inspire confidence in those anxious about their privacy being invaded.

Legally, such a regime will be in force as long so it is “necessary” to do so as part of the wider public health response required to combat COVID-19, according to the data regulator. If at some point the public health authorities determine that the measure is no longer needed, then organisations will have to stop collecting the data immediately. For Stone, however, the crux of her concern, and those of other privacy advocates, boils down to the idea that businesses, and the government, have been given the green light to normalise data collection on a massive scale.

“We don't know when [the pandemic] is going to stop,” she says. “It could be indefinite, and that's why we're worried about is this kind of creeping, increasing data collection.”

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.