British Telecom (BT) has proposed launching a mobile app named ‘888 service’ that uses GPS tracking to issue an alert to emergency contacts and then the police if someone has not arrived at their destination at the expected time. 

This initiative comes on the back of the recent case of Sarah Everard, who was abducted, raped and murdered by Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer. A further 81 women have been killed by men since Sarah, including Sabina Nessa, a teacher who was making a five-minute walk to meet friends at a pub in London.

The app, which could be launched by Christmas, is being spearheaded by BT chief executive Philip Jansen, with tacit approval from the Home Office and comes at a time of national outcry where trust in the police has been seriously shaken.

But viewed in another light, this is not merely a protective app. It is also a huge data collection exercise, developing surveillance tools that are not only opportunistic, but also pose a risk to individual privacy, thus infringing civil liberties. Law enforcement agencies have long sought this capability and have shown themselves capable of pursuing all avenues to get what they want.

Can BT or big tech be trusted?

BT is a technology giant, but as a commercial enterprise it has, until now, been fairly unique as a trusted provider of telecoms services which founded the Airwaves network serving over 300 public safety organisations including emergency services and back in the driving seat after acquiring EE to develop the struggling emergency services network (ESN), the successor to Airwaves. Just like other big tech, BT’s primary function is not surveillance or policing. Which makes developing the 888 service gesture a benevolent one following the mood of the country.

However, if the Home Office endorses BT to launch the so-called ‘get-home-safe’ service, this will see millions of smartphones installed with an app that will capture the geolocation data of individuals. This will create a significant dataset that would be, by its nature, prone to abuse. In this digital age, data is the lifeblood of decision making, with its ability to monitor behaviours, generate revenues, and track individuals for law enforcement purposes. The app could take us a step closer to an authoritarian surveillance state.

Tracking technology

This technology or capability is not new, nor is its use in this scenario. The majority of mobile phone systems, such as Apple’s iPhones and Samsung’s Android operating systems, have a built-in SOS feature that can be set up to deal with emergency situations and send alerts to a pre-determined number. 

Creative ways of achieving the same outcomes have been used by millions for years; for example, in WhatsApp, the option to share real-time location can be shared with individuals or groups, which is an invaluable tool when someone is lost and needs picking up, especially in unfamiliar territory.

GPS tracking services usually allow tracking locations of individuals or assets by recording the geolocation of a tracker (the smartphone) and transmitting that data to a cloud-based server to be viewed on a digital map.

What’s new is the intention to track vulnerable individuals for the purpose of safety. The only occasion where this is done currently is with GPS tags for those on license from prison.

How will the 888 service work?

It is still unclear exactly how the proposed system will operate. But the nature of the data is telling, as the user will have to provide their current or starting location and send an alert to someone once the user has reached their destination.

For the system to be effective, frequent updates will be required depending on the length or duration of the journey, which subsequently maps the user’s journey. Sound familiar? It should; it’s the same approach used by companies such as Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, Just Eat, Google Maps and many others, with their technologies for location and journey tracking to deliver their services.

UK laws on tracking to data protection

The laws in the UK do not specifically address the use of GPS tracking devices, although several laws govern the use of GPS technology as it’s considered a surveillance tool. If an individual can be identified using some information, this information is considered personal data. The Data Protection Act 1998 defines the information gathered by GPS trackers as personal data; this data must be dealt with in accordance with the law.

Technology companies have been known to curate and harvest mass data that could be used to compromise privacy. It’s not just the geolocation data of the person wielding the smartphone that is harvested, but also the meta-data generated by the actual data.

The volume of data that is curated is vast and requires algorithms to analyse (tagging and categorising), which opens the doors to artificial intelligence (AI). Coincidently, two weeks ago, the government launched its UK AI strategy, a ten-year roadmap to help businesses boost their AI use. BT and other private sector companies are at the heart of the plan.

Why is this a concern?

Geo-tracking technologies have long been the ire of campaign groups such as Privacy International. The Covid-19 pandemic, as the most recent case, has seen tech companies develop track and trace technologies under the guise of ‘public health’, with zero scrutiny or regulation. Even the NHS contact-tracing app has been deemed as an enforcement tool rather than one for public health.

Pre-pandemic, the Home Office was using NHS patient data for immigration enforcement. Fast forward to today and it has been revealed the Home Office now wants to use the NHS data from the covid Track and Trace system for preventing violent crime. There is inadequate regulation over the way companies collect, store and share patient data via health apps. This also raises concerns over clauses in the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill – which could force NHS bodies to disclose private patient data to police to prevent serious violence.

If you think this is not possible, consider how the NHS App has quietly become a vaccine passport for residents to access services and venues, all in the name of public health. We are now seeing the same dialogues and approaches being used in the name of public safety; what was missing then and likewise now is scrutiny and regulations that specifically govern data retention, purpose of use, and consent, to underpin the use of this technology.

If the 888 service gets off the ground, we may be handing this data over to law enforcement agencies in the name of public safety, which will not address the issues of women feeling less safe from both police, and more generally, men.

Technology is not the answer

When it concerns public safety, technology does not and cannot change a culture of misogyny that is prevalent in society and the police, nor address the root causes of male aggression towards women; it only empowers and enables them. Technology brings down barriers to make it easier to allow such behaviour to become more widespread.

Keeping women safe by introducing more draconian measures and solutions that impede personal privacy should not be the way forward in addressing serious societal issues, especially male violence toward women and girls.

BT’s well-intended proposition is a potential privacy intrusion tool; allowing such a big dataset to be created raises many other questions, such as whether the data is safe from external actors or even big tech itself. Like any tech company, profitability is always a priority. There may be a genuine desire for this initiative, but the risks of potential abuse are too great to ignore; consider that BT was fined £77,000 for spamming half a million of their own customers.

What’s in it for BT? The endorsement for the app by the Home Office is giving BT a significant advantage over other industry players that may already have solutions in this space. Facebook, WhatsApp, Apple, Amazon all have the capability and a significant userbase where they can make some minor modifications, and the service is well established. Big tech firms are reluctant to work with law enforcement and will not easily hand over data. But the jury is out over whether BT will succumb and become the Home Office patsy.

First published in Yorkshire Bylines.

By Javed

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