Contact tracing apps & vulnerable migrants: key concerns

In our recent blog we discussed the emerging privacy issues around contact tracing and ‘immunity passports’, and the announcement from Google and Apple that they are jointly working on a contact tracing app. Open Rights Group (ORG) calls for both technical and legal safeguards to be introduced to ensure privacy is protected. These safeguards are essential to ensure both take up and trust in the planned measures and ultimately their success in the containment of the Covid-19 virus.

Here we will look at how the emerging privacy concerns around tracing and ‘immunity passports’ affect some vulnerable or marginalised migrants in particular. Their vulnerability may derive from facing significant social exclusion and marginalisation or being afraid to interact with governmental or non-governmental agencies.

The immigration policy context is defined by the hostile environment policy, which has a number of implications for migrants. The most pressing one is in the area of healthcare – treatment for COVID-19 has been made free for everyone regardless of whether they have paid the migrant healthcare surcharge, however many migrants may not know this. In addition, the Department for Health and Social Care has confirmed it will be sharing data with the Home Office and as a result vulnerable migrants may be deterred to seek medical help even if they are having Covid-19 symptoms. A number of organisations in the sector have issued a joint letter calling for an end to the Hostile Environment

With regard to technical safeguards for contact tracing there are two main issues – trust and take-up. Trust is a key factor, success of the new technologies is dependent on widespread use and adoption. This in turn is dependant on ensuring that privacy is as protected as possible and general risks around data sharing, re-use of data, mission-creep and repurposing of contact mapping data can be reduced or removed. For some vulnerable migrants clarifying who has access to the collected data, how it will be shared between private and government agencies and what exactly it will be used for will be critical to adoption and use. Ensuring guarantees that data shared through these apps will not be used for immigration enforcement or denial of services is particularly important.

The other consideration is take-up and use of the tool. The government has estimated that it needs 50-60% of the population to use the NHSX app for it to provide enough data points and that means a very large percentage of smartphone users. The Bluetooth LE technology which supports the tracing apps is not available on all phones, especially not older and cheaper models, often used by people with limited economic means. Also, among some migrant groups sometimes a number of people may be sharing one device, which creates additional problems with tracing. Thus even if near-universal adoption among users who can support an app takes place, the data gathered may not have wide enough coverage and pockets of exclusion may appear, which can lead to certain groups being left out of the measures.

We know even less about plans for ‘immunity passports’, but it is clear these could result in a centralised register. There will again be questions of mission creep, potential for abuse, and more appropriate alternatives which remove these risks.

Legal safeguards to privacy and against abuse

In addition to safeguards for data privacy which can be built in the technology discussed above, there is also the need for legal guarantees. A group of academics has reviewed the emerging legal challenges with regard to these new technologies and have proposed a Coronavirus (Safeguards) Bill 2020 to protect against abuse of contact tracing tools and also ‘Immunity Passports‘. The proposal would mandate that there would be:

  • No sanctions for failing to carry device, install or run application
  • No mandatory requirement to install application or display immunity certificate credential without due safeguards
  • No reuse of evidence or data derived from symptom tracking and contact tracing, and immunity certification, without due safeguards

As the authors say, “Uptake of apps, crucial to their success, will be improved if people feel confident their data will not be misused, repurposed or shared”. For immigrants, ensuring safeguards on data sharing with the Home Office specifically for the purpose of immigration enforcement and access to services is crucial.

Recognising that vulnerable and marginalised migrants, as well as other vulnerable groups, may be facing a higher risk in terms of their privacy in the context of new technologies developed to contain the spread of Covid 19 is essential for building trust and ensuring the success of these measures.

Background: ORG is implementing a new project aimed at building capacity and empowering the migrant and refugee sector to respond to the growing importance of data governance and new technologies at different stages of people’s migration journeys. We have developed a survey, jointly with Privacy International, which will help better understand how we can support different types of organisations in the sector, such as frontline services, legal advice, community support, policy and campaigning. The answers will help shape our future activities-workshops, trainings, webinars, discussions, etc.

The survey can be found here: and is open until 4 May.