ICO Investigating Complaints About “Unsolicited” Texts Sent To Promote NHS COVID-19 App

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is investigating complaints about “unsolicited” text messages and emails sent to promote the NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app, The Register reports.

The NHS Test and Trace app, which launched on 24 September and is based on the previously-rejected Exposure Notification framework from Apple and Google, has so-far been downloaded more than 14 million times.

In a bid to encourage more Brits to install the app, NHS Digital sent texts and emails to all UK residents over the age of 16 who had previously provided their contact details to a GP. As noted by The Register, those contacted had not specifically opted in to receive marketing communications regarding the NHS COVID-19 app.

“All individuals over the age of 16 who are registered with a GP in England and have provided an email address to the NHS are receiving this email. Some people will receive a text message instead, if an email address has not been provided,” a notice on the UK gov website reads.

This apparent marketing push has generated a wave of complaints from Brits slamming the messages as “unsolicited” and questioning whether the marketing push broke data protection laws.

“I have just received an unsolicited text message from the privately run ‘NHS’ test and trace, I would like to know how they got my mobile number,” one UK resident wrote on Twitter.

Another adds: “Got the email. perhaps no-one cares in the circumstances but it’s 2 data protection problems… a) GPs are not ‘the NHS’ and can’t share email/mobile data b) an example in the ICO guidance is GPs can’t text to encourage ppl to e.g. get flu jabs (unless consent is given).”

In a statement sent to The Register, the ICO confirmed it had started investigating after receiving complaints.

“We have received complaints in relation to text and email messages being sent about the NHS COVID-19 app and we are making enquiries,” it said.

In an FAQ, the NHS justified the messaging drive by stating it was “determined a matter of public health importance to encourage people to download the app as a critical part of NHS Test and Trace.”

“England is experiencing a second peak of coronavirus transmission, resulting in a number of local restrictions and tightening of national restrictions,” the notice continues. “Encouraging people to download the NHS COVID-19 app is considered by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to be a highly important tool for managing and monitoring the outbreak, and a matter of public interest.”

It remains to be seen if any action will be taken by the ICO. Earlier this year, the watchdog advised that “data protection and electronic communication laws do not stop Government, the NHS or any other health professionals from sending public health messages to people, either by phone, text or email as these messages are not direct marketing.”

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