Pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants all around the UK are beginning to reopen in some capacity. However, if you’ve been down to your local pub lately, it’s likely you’ve noticed things aren’t what they once were. The government has provided guidelines for how pubs can operate safely, including social distancing measures. They've also asked pub managers to keep a record of the names and phone numbers of any customers in case they need to be contacted about another patron testing positive for COVID-19. However, reports are beginning to emerge from pub-goers about employees contacting them for reasons other than COVID tracking – including to ask them on a date. If this experience sounds familiar to you, here's how to report someone who misuses the track and trace phone number system. Because not only is it incredibly creepy and a form of harassment, it's also a breach of UK data laws.
The government has asked hospitality venues to collect the names and numbers of the people visiting their venues to help the NHS Test and Trace system. If someone tests positive for COVID-19 then everyone in their direct vicinity needs to be contacted quickly in the hope that it’ll prevent a localised outbreak. According to the new government guidelines, venues are supposed to store these details safely and destroy them after 21 days.
While this is an excellent idea in theory, in reality, people may experience unwanted attention and even harassment as a result of having to hand over their personal details. Speaking to Wired, Rowenna Fielding, head of individual rights and ethics at data protection consultancy Protecture, said, “Your mobile number is a key identifier for you. With a phone number, you can search social media for that person’s accounts. You can upload the information to advertising micro-targeting tools. And you can harass people: stalk them, commit fraud or identity theft, spam them.”
If you're concerned about how your contacts are being stored, shared, or used, below are some options for what to do next.
Speak To The Venue
If you’ve been contacted by someone and you suspect they found your details via the venue's NHS Track and Trace records, then you should consider reaching out to the pub or restaurant where you were. The misuse of a customer's personal data could spell serious trouble not only for the individual that's contacting you but also the establishment they work at. It is the establishment's responsibility to protect your data from everyone – including staff. By reaching out to the venue, you are placing the onus on them to deal with the problem and reprimand the employee.
Speak To The ICO
When you pass over your name and personal details, you want to know it’s in safe hands. However, if your information is misused you’re well within your right to file a complaint. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is an independent authority that works to raise awareness about data privacy and uphold the information rights of the public.
The ICO outlines that pubs and restaurants are allowed to collect your data so long as you knowingly and willingly provide it and it is optional. However, your number cannot be used for reasons you didn't consent to.
“People have every right to go out for a meal or have a drink without fear of getting an unwanted call from the staff that served them,” an ICO spokesperson tells me, “that is never OK and any complaints we receive will be taken seriously.”
They continue: “If businesses are collecting the personal data of customers then they need to make sure they have procedures in place to handle it securely and safely. Not handling personal data properly means businesses and staff risk breaching the Data Protection Act with severe consequences for both.”
The ICO has a live chat function and hotline on their website which helps people deal with complaints against organisations. If you’ve received unwanted messages, phone calls, or are worried about how your information is being handled, then you can reach out to them using their ‘Make A Complaint’ page. You will have to specify the nature of what you’re dealing with and the website highlights that acting quickly is important.
Speak To The Police
Harassment is a criminal offence and a civil action under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Generally speaking, harassment is define as behaviour that causes the victim distress or alarm. Under the Protection from Harassment Act, if you have experienced at least two incidents by the same person, that constitutes harassment and can be reported to the police.
Call 101 or your local police station (a directory can be found here) to speak to someone about the harassment you are experiencing. The Met Police also recommend you take screenshots of any digital communications as they could be important further down the line.