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A call to developers (as a developer)

This is a call to all software developers, software architects and software enthusiasts: Let’s not build a privacy nightmare in blind fear of COVID-19.

The year is 2021. COVID-19 has mutated, a good portion of the people who get infected die. Strict laws have been established that force every citizen to track their every step to identify potential crossings with infectious people. The devices activate a shrill alarm when people get too close, sending out notifications to law enforcement. Citizens that report people which show symptoms or have not been vaccinated yet receive a tax benefit for proving to be good citizens. The population widely accepts these regulations — nobody wants any more people to die.

One year later COVID-19 finally is a thing of the past. In some countries the pandemic left behind an enormous chaos. Rulers had to take initiative and overrule existing laws to fight the pandemic — but by now they have come to like the power and established a dictatorship. Not even having bad intentions — they simply think it’s the best way to re-establish order. And they are quite successful doing so — citizens are being tracked whenever they move. Tax benefits for reporting people to fight COVID-19 have been altered: citizens that report people that pose a danger to the established government now receive tax benefits. If only there would be a “stop tracking” button or some way of governance mechanism…

In his book 1984 George Orwell describes a dystopian world, where a totalitarian government took control that tracks their citizens 24/7 and tries to shape their minds. Tracking is being done through telescreens and “good citizens” that report anyone that is behaving out of “order”. This system serves an entity under the name of “Big Brother”.

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Slogan of “the party” in George Orwell’s book 1984

With all this chaos and fear spreading around COVID-19 lots of developers try to help stopping the virus by implementing useful tools. That’s heroic and should be supported, people need to stand together and help each other.

However — unfortunately the fear of the virus seems to be so immense, that everything else is being overlooked. Tools are built that track users with no regard to their privacy whatsoever. And people actually use them because they are not aware of the dangers that lie within those tools.

A basic human right in a democracy is (or should I say used to be) the “Right to privacy”. “Over 150 national constitutions mention the right to privacy” states Wikipedia [1].

“The privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications shall be inviolable.”

The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Article 10

It seems modern civilization has forgotten why this was declared to be a basic human right. Governments won’t care about your privacy unless you do. The increased acceptance rate for being tracked among the population - driven by fear — can be abused.

Yes, COVID-19 should be taken seriously and yes, we should build tools to fight it. In fact we should have had them ready BEFORE a pandemic even hits. As with most mistakes that we as individuals and us as humanity make, we only learn that the stove is too hot to be touched after touching it once and burning our fingers. We could have planned ahead and built useful tools to aid us in such a scenario.

There are ways to build the very same tools that can help us in stopping a pandemic in a way that respects our privacy. We can have the same data available for analysis and decision making without giving up on our right to privacy.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Benjamin Franklin

An example for a privacy respecting project is “SafeTrace”, created by the enigma team. It allows to analyze a persons location history and calculates potential path crossings with infected people. Yes, there are certainly things that should be improved in a future version, but since we didn’t plan ahead we have to act quickly now. This is a good first step.

We can build the much needed tools without creating Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother at the same time. It just requires a little bit more thinking and planning — working out a better architecture to not just help people in the short term but to also respect their privacy in the long run. And maybe that’s worth it?

When I ask people “Don’t you fear about your privacy?” they usually answer the same way something along those lines: “Well, I am no criminal, I am not hiding anything, I don’t have anything to fear.”. Judging from the world we live in, I would tend to agree. But we have learned to build our opinions on more than just the present situation — we learned to count in history and to consider all contingencies. In fact the main reason for teaching history in schools is “to avoid repeating the mistakes from our past”.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

George Santayana

Here is a harsh and well-known example from the past: Jews didn’t consider themselves criminals way back in Nazi-Germany — and yet some government decided they should be treated as such (and worse).

Even though the scenario painted in the intro of this article seems to be “so far away” for us to even imagine now — is it really worth taking the risk when it could be avoided relatively easy? It will be a though mistake to learn from — if it comes to it.

“The voice from the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter […].”

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“He [Winston] was back in the Ministry of Love, with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in the public dock, confessing everything, implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.

He [Winston] gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

Ending of “1984” by George Orwell

Thank you for reading.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_privacy

Written by

Software Developer, Tech Enthusiast, Privacy Advocate

Software Developer, Tech Enthusiast, Privacy Advocate

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