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.