We use cookies to help improve and maintain our site. More information.

March 26, 2020

Testing and tracking - a recipe for Europe?

South Korea mastered the Covid-19 spread with massive testing and geo-tracking of smartphones to identify movements of those who had been in contact with the infected. Is this a recipe for Europe? After the confinement this would allow people to move freely again, but this freedom would comes at the price of lost privacy. It raises fundamental questions about data protection and deep-seated fears of an Orwellian surveillance state, concerns Asian countries do not seem to have.

The French government just installed a new committee to look at the specifics of such a tracking model. The French have been suspicious of uncontrolled and absolute power since the French revolution. Finding the right balance between authority and respect for public liberties will be the challenge in this exercise. Health minister Olivier Véran already signalled that, on a personal level, he is sceptical to go down this road. Meanwhile, commentators urge to put the emphasis on mass testing instead.

The Germans, too, have an entrenched memory of surveillance in the 1930s and the eavesdropping practices in East Germany more recently. Last week the government was forced to backtrack on proposals to use technical means to identify whom sick people had been in contact with after opposition politicians branded them a blank cheque for surveillance.

So far only Slovakia dared to move in this direction, according to the FT. Slovakia's new government just passed a law allowing the state to use telecoms data to track the movements of people infected by Covid-19 virus, to ensure that they are abiding by quarantine rules. But this resulted in a public outcry and the government had to clarify that the data was limited to the outbreak, that it will last only until December and will be available only to the health ministry. 

Other countries are using partial monitoring or are preparing a system that is yet to become technically functional. Serbia, for example, is tracing those with Italian numbers. The Czech Republic is planning a smart quarantine system in April in which people have to consent to being monitored.

The use of big data will not go away after the pandemic. Greece used tracking to warn migrants on the move in Turkey not to come to the Greek border. It is also easy to see how natural disasters like earthquakes could justify tracking. If European countries were to move into this direction, it will depend on the extend of surveillance, access to data, and whether the checks and balances are any better than the GDPR, which is just a pain for everyone. There will be a threshold where surveillance will cost the trust people still have in technology.

Public trust is enabling the digital world we live in, reminds us Marie-Catherine Beuth in L'Opinion. Without trust, no staying in someone else's house using Airbnb or going by car with strangers with Uber. Without trust, there is no crowdfunding, e-commerce or photo sharing with the world. Without trust, no innovation like autonomous cars or artificial intelligence in the medical world. The big tech giants are well aware of this. Google has created an ethics committee on artificial intelligence to support the avant-garde work carried out by its subsidiary DeepMind by reassuring citizens.

As we are contemplating people- tracking to rein in the pandemic, there is of course a more simple solution for people who won't tolerate surveillance: leave the phone at home.

Show Comments Write a Comment

March 26, 2020

Diplomacy and the Wuhan virus

The purpose of a provocation is to elicit a certain reaction from an opponent. Mike Pompeo certainly managed to achieve that by insisting on calling Covid-19 the Wuhan virus. After yesterday’s conference call among G7 foreign ministers, there seems to be no chance of a joint G7 declaration on the politics of the virus because of Pompeo’s language. From the US perspective, lack of agreement is intentional. The US strategy is based on two pillars; the first is a blame game targeted at China for creating the virus, and at Europe for spreading it. The second is markedly different policy response, as Donald Trump wants to relax all restrictions by Easter. 

Those convinced that the EU’s anti-virus policies are superior because they are based on scientific evidence might want to take a look at Sweden, a country that refused even to close the schools. We cannot rule out that Donald Trump’s anti-crisis gambit will work politically for him. We will never know whether a recession will cause a greater loss of life than the virus. We ourselves argued during the Greek crisis that the rise in suicides attributed to the crisis was of similar magnitude to that of a small-to-medium-sized war. If a long shut-down produces a depression, it will without a doubt have an impact on mortality. The political risk for Trump is that each virus death is accounted for, while the impact of a recession is harder to measure. The gambit is therefore genuinely risky. We keep an open mind on whether he will win it. But, if he does, his chances of another four years in the White House would rise accordingly.

Show Comments Write a Comment

This is the public section of the Eurointelligence Professional Briefing, which focuses on the geopolitical aspects of our news coverage. It appears daily at 2pm CET. The full briefing, which appears at 9am CET, is only available to subscribers. Please click here for a free trial, and here for the Eurointelligence home page.


Recent News

  • January 15, 2020
  • Philippe's not-so-generous compromise offer
  • What is Erdogan up to in Libya?
  • When it is noise and not a signal
  • September 11, 2019
  • What are the chances of a deal?
  • May 09, 2019
  • The EU's impossible dilemma
  • The horsetrading starts in Sibiu
  • May to bring withdrawal bill to Commons week after next
  • January 04, 2019
  • Will the AfD become the Dexit party?
  • Romania's corruption problem in the spotlight of its EU presidency
  • August 24, 2018
  • Towards a standoff between Italy and the EU
  • A short note on the diminishing role of economists in political life
  • April 23, 2018
  • More bad news for the SPD
  • Will Theresa May accept a customs union? The Times says yes. We think so too.
  • A comeback for Marine Le Pen?
  • December 20, 2017
  • Down with the gown
  • How to overcome the political gridlock in Italy
  • Varoufakis is suing the ECB
  • August 21, 2017
  • Soft, getting softer
  • Tsipras' chances of a boost
  • On the fallacy of a middle-ground option for the eurozone
  • April 12, 2017
  • Macro in a state of denial
  • Where Schulz is vulnerable
  • Schäuble’s three party tricks
  • December 15, 2016
  • Scared of its own electorate
  • Towards a transitional deal
  • The comeback of Gerhard Schröder as the SPD's powerbroker
  • August 19, 2016
  • Brexit realities slowly dawning on the City
  • Opening shot for Hollande's campaign
  • April 25, 2016
  • The death of the Grand Coalition
  • Insurrection against TTIP
  • Juppé to benefit from Macron hype
  • On optimal currency areas
  • Why the Artic region could be the next geopolitical troublespot
  • From a currency to a people
  • July 29, 2020
  • Le Pen's summer contribution
  • Turkey's games with the EU
  • July 14, 2020
  • Why the far-right might win in the end
  • June 29, 2020
  • Édouard Philippe - mayor or prime minister?
  • Sir Humphrey, R.I.P.
  • June 16, 2020
  • Is Trump preparing for a final propaganda war against Europe?
  • A historic coalition deal for Ireland
  • June 05, 2020
  • What to make of the German fiscal expansion
  • Inequality through and after lockdown
  • May 26, 2020
  • French fashion stores - lockdown is one crisis too many
  • An important German supreme court ruling against VW
  • Public scrutiny over lockdown rules
  • May 14, 2020
  • Another migrant wave from Turkey?
  • Hyperventilating about the German court
  • May 05, 2020
  • Germany's cash-for-clunkers
  • What about the summer holidays?
  • April 27, 2020
  • The EU’s trickery of a fake MFF
  • Philippe to put down cards as trust evaporates
  • April 20, 2020
  • What if we are wrong?
  • April 15, 2020
  • Italy’s coalition disagrees about the ESM
  • April 06, 2020
  • The feedback loop of Covid-19 and inequalities - part 10 of our series
  • How confinement affects mental health
  • April 02, 2020
  • Covid-19 and the return of the nation state - part eight of our series
  • Politics of an L-shaped recovery
  • March 30, 2020
  • Decision making under radical uncertainty
  • March 27, 2020
  • Watch out for the coalition of the south
  • The race to save jobs