Get COVID-19 App right now to avoid democratic failure later – letter to MPs

Dear MP,

Women Leading in AI: Get COVID-19 App right now to avoid democratic failure later

We’re writing to you following the news that a new COVID-19 Tracing App is about to be released.

Right now, nothing is more important than saving lives and protecting the NHS and, for this reason, we agree that digital contact tracing, coupled with testing, can work and should be deployed.

Our ask is for you to act rapidly to ensure that all democratic safeguards are in place while you do so. We believe this is possible and must be done: the way we will deal with this now will frame how our data will be used in the future. We must avoid the machinery of today being used undemocratically later.

For this to happen, Women Leading in AI make 3 recommendations:

1. Governance: publish the governance framework supporting the deployment of the app.

2. Oversight: establish an Oversight Board which operates in a totally accountable way and reports to MPs and the general public.

3. A collective endeavour: government needs to frame this as an emergency measure to prevent it becoming norm.


This is the largest health crisis to have happened in a new technological and data driven era –one which can still amaze us with news of wonderful creations we can get our hands on today or that are just around the corner. It also amazes us for all the wrong reasons, with its power to harm us too.

There is no doubt that the deployment of the COVID-19 app will have a huge impact on society, challenging privacy, inclusion and equality. The way we deal with this now will define the future. We do not want Covid-19 data today to become surveillance data tomorrow.

We believe we can do things in the right way, and rapidly.

Our ask

The time to get this right is now, as we navigate the emergency with an eye to the future. There are several steps we should take.

1. Governance

Digital contact tracing is part of a much bigger puzzle which includes testing, predicting NHS capacity and extending protections. We believe it is right to put health as the main priority right now, and we should do all we can to ensure we return to normality safely.

Right now, our personal data is the most valuable collective resource as it can help develop new drugs, trace those who might be infected and by doing so help us defeat the virus.

However, digital contact tracing will have a huge impact on society and our task is to establish the right governance and standards whilst striving to act swiftly. We ask for:

· A clear governance framework showing how data flow will be governed

· A clear list of the private companies involved, and to which extent

· A clear accountability structure for the public, the media and MPs to query at any point.

2. The establishment of an Oversight Board to take charge of ethics, privacy and transparency controls.

We ask the government to establish an Oversight Board with the ability to review all actions taken to ensure that any technological development is based on a clear assessment of the opportunities and benefits versus the risks that it entails; that data minimisation is respected at all times and that the data is destroyed when no longer needed.

The oversight board will ensure that the public know what data is used, and that the algorithms deployed are open to scrutiny. They will interrogate the government on any algorithmic bias which could have unintended implications for equality and inclusion. For example, 60% of over 65’s don’t have a smartphone so face exclusion from the app.

3. Framing the question correctly

There is no doubt that contact tracing will have a huge impact on society. Doing this right is essential. We don’t need to sacrifice our usual protections and safeguards in the need to act swiftly. The measure of our success will be in how we are able to move rapidly whilst protecting democracy.

We ask the government to frame this is a collective endeavour – we need citizens to know that we are giving up privacy, but that this is temporary and for the common good. If the public are can be assured that their data will be used correctly during this crisis then they will be supportive. The way that we collect COVID-19 data today does not need to see us sleepwalk into an undemocratic future tomorrow.

We urge you to use your influence to make sure that our Government expedite rule and adopts these three recommendations straight away.

Yours Sincerely,

Women Leading in AI Network

Image: courtesy of Felipe Esquivel Reed
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