COVID-19: Technology developed to track spread of coronavirus could be misused, privacy activist warns | UK News
A medical privacy campaigner says technology developed to track the spread of COVID-19 is a new form of surveillance that could be abused.
Phil Booth, coordinator at MedConfidential, warned that increased wastewater monitoring sinks, drains and toilets, which can reveal infections and drug use, must be properly regulated.
“Concerns will be raised more about mission creep, feature creep, how these miniaturized technologies could be used and abused beyond the pandemic,” he said.
“There needs to be regulation of all sorts of technologies that can affect people’s lives and individuals.”
His claims follow a York-based biotech company’s launch of what it calls a “mobile monitoring platform” to detect COVID in sewage from individual buildings.
The suitcase-sized piece of equipment can be connected to any drain to send data remotely to a computer where it is interpreted using artificial intelligence.
The company, Modern Water, claims to have installed static monitors at 3,000 sites in 60 countries and can detect “drugs, pesticides, personal care, [and] hormones” in wastewater.
It began testing its Microtox PD mobile COVID monitoring system at municipal sewage treatment plants across the UK last year.
Paul Ryan, business development director at the company’s parent company, Deepverge, told Sky News he expects the new device to be available for hire within months to monitor COVID in buildings, including schools, hospitals and hotels.
“It’s about surveillance, it’s about identifying the presence of COVID and other pathogens in advance,” he said.
“I think there’s a growing consensus that wastewater-based epidemiology offers a whole new layer of information that enables national health surveillance.”
Testing of raw sewage has been dramatically increased since it was discovered in 2020 to contain remnants of the COVID-19 virus.
Last year, the UK government’s Joint Biosafety Center opened a new lab near Exeter which now tests thousands of samples taken from sewage works and individual drains every week.
A report published in September 2021 said the centre’s environmental health protection monitoring program covered around 40 million people in England.
The heightened surveillance comes as identification of illicit drug use from sewage analysis is on the rise, according to an EU report released last year on surveillance between 2011 and 2020.
The report ranked 80 European cities, including none in the UK, for the use of codeine, amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA, based on drug residues found in sewage.
“The results provide valuable insight into the drug flow in the cities involved,” he said.
The UK Health Safety Agency, which oversees the national sewage monitoring programme, told Sky News its sewage program meets government data protection standards.
“Data provided to local and national decision makers regarding COVID-19 is not considered personal data,” the agency said in an email response.
“It cannot identify infected people or homes because it is designed to provide community-level information.”