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COVID-19 tracing: technology is not the savior. Or is it?


Some governments used the health crisis to cement their power and limit human rights both online and offline, argue human rights watchdogs. Meanwhile, companies, such as Google, brag about helping combat the pandemic while protecting people’s privacy.

While technology provided the possibility for us to work, study, or shop remotely during the quarantine, this fast digital leap also had human rights implications.

“Past 6-7 months have proven that people don't have any reason to trust most governments, that at (...) worst have used the crisis to centralize and cement their power, and limit human rights online and offline,” European Policy Manager at Access Now Fanny Hidvégi said in a United Nations discussion about protecting human rights during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, some countries, such as Finland, and companies, such as Google, point out the success stories of harnessing the technology to mitigate the pandemic.

Concerns about potential privacy breaches

Silvio Gonzato, Ambassador, Deputy Head of Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations, said that technologies opened various opportunities for people during the quarantine. Children were able to study, while their parents could work remotely.

“Technologies facilitated access to culture at a time when all the cultural establishments were closed,” he said.

It also allowed researchers to share information on the findings, and to trace the spread of the virus. 

“On the other hand, tracing apps have been at the heart of a very heated debate around the world. Concerns regarding the potential misuse and potential data privacy breaches emerged,” Silvio Gonzato said.

Tracing apps have been at the heart of a very heated debate around the world. Concerns regarding the potential misuse and potential data privacy breaches emerged,

Silvio Gonzato said.

Countries like France, Finland, or Germany, developed contact tracing apps, and the European Union developed a toolbox and continues to update technical guidance.

“Tracing apps must be voluntary, secure, and interoperable, and respect privacy. Apps should avoid the identification of users and should not use the geolocation. All the applications must be temporary only, and will have to be dismantled as soon as the pandemic is over, and should retain data only for the minimum period of time,” he explained.

Finland’s contact tracing app has been rather successful as 2.2 million people out of 5.5 million citizens have downloaded the app.

Ville Skinnari, Finnish Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, argued that digitalization has the potential to enhance health and wellbeing, as well as economic and social resilience, and is crucial in promoting sustainable development and human rights. 

“COVID-19 presented an unprecedented digital leap in a matter of months. Data is fuel for technologies such as contact tracing and data sharing. We must ensure that digitalization respects your right to privacy,” said Ville Skinnari.

App development in Finland required legislation changes and public discussion. Citizens can use this application anonymously, and no identifiable personal data is collected.

Google is monitoring public movement

Google is helping to mitigate the health crisis by providing governments with the community mobility report and exposure notifications.

“We heard from public health officials that anonymized aggregated data would be helpful for them to make critical decisions around COVID-19. The officials that we spoke to said that these types of insights on how populations were moving would be useful in understanding how to make changes based on those changing trends,” said Alexandria Walden, Global Policy Lead for Human Rights and Free Expression at Google.

So the tech giant started publishing the community mobility report that tracks and shows movement in recreational spaces, grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, transit stations, and residential areas. Google doesn’t share absolute numbers, only the percentage, to protect users. Also, the company doesn’t use personal data.

Another project by Google and Apple is the exposure notification system.

“These are to help communities and governments fight the pandemic. Traditional methods of contact tracing are critical, and technology can’t replace that. But technology can help support and augment these efforts, and help officials to notify quickly people who might have been exposed,” said Alexandria Walden.

Google started publishing the community mobility report that tracks and shows movement in recreational spaces, grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, transit stations, and residential areas.

Only one app developer per country is granted access to this product. Developers aren’t allowed to access the API unless they are public health authorities or are building an app on behalf of the government. 

Also, to protect people’s privacy, developers can’t ask for any personal information, such as age, gender, race, etc.

“The technology is only used to fight COVID-19, and will be dismantled as soon as the disease is contained,” she said.

Meanwhile, human rights activists are much less enthusiastic about the use of technology during the pandemic.

“Technology is not the savior”

According to Fanny Hidvégi, European Policy Manager at Access Now, the past 6 or 7 months have proven that “people don’t have any reason to trust most governments.” At best, they were simply incompetent.

“At worst, they have used the crisis to centralize and cement their power, and limit human rights online and offline,” she said.

Access Now has monitored how different forms of censorship emerged during the pandemic. Governments used criminal offenses for spreading misleading information related to COVID-19 in Ethiopia, Italy, France, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the UK, Spain, the list continues.

People were taken into custody for expressing their opinion online in places like Venezuela and Hungary, people in countries like Belarus or Myanmar had their access to information restricted and were experiencing internet shutdowns.

“Governments have introduced emergency powers, in some cases without procedural safeguards to return to normalcy,” she said, naming Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Tunisia, Palestine, Israel, Chile, and Ecuador.

Also, politicians have been using the momentum to push for immunity certificates and digital ID systems, and different forms of surveilling public spaces around the world, including Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

“We should not be afraid of technology, but we also shouldn’t look at it as our savior or as an ultimate solution,” Fanny Hidvégi said.

She has even criticized contact tracing apps, as the impact of these apps to help mitigate the health crisis remains unproven. 

“The privacy and data protection approach does not necessarily show the difference in people’s willingness to use it. France and Germany, countries that chose different approaches, have a very low uptick. (...) This matters from a legal and human rights perspective so that the health crisis wouldn’t turn into the human rights crisis,” she said.

Digital Pandemic Surveillance and the Right to Privacy video screenshot

Privacy vs health

In April, CyberNews decided to ask people in the US how they feel about the potential of giving up their privacy during the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The results have shown that roughly two-thirds of Americans are worried that the tracking measures used to contain the spread of the virus could lead to greater government surveillance.

In addition, the vast majority of survey respondents (~79%) were either somewhat worried or very worried that intrusive tracking measures enacted by the government would continue long after the COVID-19 pandemic has been defeated, with only ~9% not being worried at all.

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