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Why the Topic of Contact Tracing Apps Has Been So Controversial

Network of Centers
Jun 22, 2020 · 6 min read

By Juan Carlos De Martin

It is difficult to write about an event of historic proportion like COVID-19 as it happens- — we contemporaries are simply too close and too involved to see clearly what is unfolding. Yet at the same time we need to try. We need to try because to make sense of our lives is a deeply felt human need, but also because during great crises history often quickens its pace: latent conflicts may erupt, power balances shift, new dangers appear. Emergency can be a powerful midwife of historic changes, and unfortunately sometimes not for the better. We need, therefore, to try to watch closely what is happening to try to seize opportunities as well as to prevent negative developments. In doing so we should try to build on whatever we learned after the previous two crises of the last 20 years, i.e., 9/11 and the 2007–2008 financial crash.

The first thing we learned is that, while some changes indeed took place, by and large the fundamental structure of society and, more broadly, of the world remained essentially the same (see, for instance, Adam Tooze’s “Crash” and Philip Mirowski’s “Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste” to understand in detail the 2007–2008 crisis, what happened and, crucially, what did not happen and arguably why).

Radical change, therefore, although in theory always possible, is best considered unlikely, even if the economic and social impact of COVID-19 could be significantly larger than the impacts of the two previous crises combined.

Let’s then focus on how the situation might evolve given the current framework.

Regarding the digital domain, I expect both the strengthening of ongoing processes and a specific potential new development.

Regarding the ongoing processes, the dominant role of a few large companies will most likely become even more dominant, unless some countervailing power manifests itself. Companies, in fact, of the size, know-how and financial might of Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. could not only sustain the impact of the epidemic, but also seize the opportunity to enlarge their customer base and reinforce the perception of their role as essential infrastructure of society and the economy. Under the spur of the emergency, to make the specific example of Italy, approximately ten million students from kindergarten to University, with few exceptions, were trusted essentially overnight to Facebook, Whatsapp, Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc. not only often without any central coordination, but also without appropriate scrutiny of the implications of inserting private actors into a crucial function of the State — namely, education.

The specific potential new development is related to the apparently minor issue of State-issued contact tracing apps for mobile devices.

The issue is well-known: many states have deployed or will deploy in the near future apps to assist contact tracing during the epidemic. These plans have generated huge controversies, particularly in Europe and in the USA, and attracted a large media coverage. At first glance such an intense reaction is odd: how could something as commonplace as a smartphone app generate so much debate? Many people, after all, have dozens of apps installed on their phones, including some which are quite invasive — how could one more be such a contested issue? Several reasons are at play.

One is certainly the question of personal data protection: many people were worried that the sanitary emergency would induce States to relax privacy rules. However in Europe privacy is so well established in the law (personal data protection is even one of the fundamental rights of the European Union) and in the perception of many people that politically it cannot be (and should not be) easily bypassed, even in the midst of a sanitary emergency. Moreover, in most cases there are good privacy preserving techniques to fight the epidemic.

Another reason for the debate regarding the contact tracing apps is that some politicians found it convenient to focus their public communication on an app, presenting an easy to use, shiny, cheap, high-tech silver bullet capable of defeating the epidemic all by itself. A short-sighted tactic that quickly backfired not only because if you politicize an issue, then you get, well, politics, but more importantly given current technology no contact tracing app can be anything more than one component. It is likely not the most important one and only augments a much wider and very “analog” (human contact tracers, nurses, doctors, lab technicians, testing kits, etc.) strategy to fight the epidemic.

A third reason for the ferocious debates is that in the current political and ideological landscape any direct action of the State meets a certain amount of immediate criticism from a broad range of political views that range from old-school anarchism to “small State” liberalism (in the European sense). While State actions certainly need scrutiny (if only because the might of the State is still unmatched by any private actor), some of these reactions have been almost Pavlovian in their automatism.

A fourth reason is that in the thick of the epidemic several public officials and politicians went on record arguing for a mandatory use of the yet-to-be-defined app, some of them even invoked the use of mandatory “smart” bracelets; others said that the app would become a sort of “passport” that would determine whether citizens could leave their homes, use public transport, etc. All in all, a dystopian panoply that alarmed many citizens and experts and which certainly contributed to intensifying the controversies.

All these factors have been very public during the past two months or so, and taken together, fully explain why the topic of contact tracing apps has been so controversial.

I suspect, however, that there may be another, less explicit force at play, which may have indirectly contributed to raise the intensity of the debates. Even though I do not have any tangible element to buttress my suspicion, I invite you to entertain, as a thought experiment, the possibility that many States wish for an app not only to fight the epidemic, but also because they find it tempting to have their own direct presence on smartphones. A direct way to be in contact with citizens, to collect data about them without having to always rely on intermediaries, be that telco operators or service providers.

It is not — let’s be clear — an ex ante unreasonable political objective. Why should it be OK, in fact, that private companies, in many cases foreign ones, handle the data of billions of people, affect their fundamental rights (such as freedom of expression) and take quasi-public functions (think of the functions such as “mark yourself safe” in a disaster, not to speak of a currency) and why it should, instead, be impossible for the State to have, too, a (smartphone) presence, naturally with all the proper safeguards, countermeasures, remedies, etc.? Isn’t the democratic State in principle the best entity to devise solutions that respect minorities and fight racism and injustice? Moreover, in recent years have we not already appreciated several public initiatives, such as the projects of the City of Barcelona, establishing a direct public presence in the digital domain? True, it was mostly municipal projects, or small States like Estonia and Iceland (1.3 and 0.36 million inhabitants, respectively), but why not also large States like France, Germany or Italy? Outright, ex ante opposition to State initiatives frankly can be understood only in the context of dogmatic opposition to the role of the State.

If we, instead, are open to entertain the idea of a role for the State in this context, then the problem would be not so much with the objective (to be properly discussed and defined), but with the way followed so far, assuming of course — a big “if”, I admit — that my thought experiment as any connection with reality and therefore that a way has actually been followed.

If democratic States do think that it is time to have a open role — both direct and/or promoting digital commons — in the digital life of their citizens, in fact, a role that would parallel the enormous role taken by a few private companies in the last 15 years or so, then they should openly and clearly advocate for it. Building on the already considerable experience built in several communities, States should promote a discussion about the pros and cons of the idea of their direct presence in the digital sphere of their citizens, a discussion which should go much beyond the specific, contingent, after all minor issue of contact tracing apps.

As for all new developments, also in this case there would be risks, of course, as there are risks in leaving things as they are.

But in any case COVID-19 is showing us that the time for an open, democratic, informed discussion about the respective roles in the digital domain of private and public actors has come for the nation States of the world at large.

Juan Carlos de Martin is the founder of the Nexa Center for Internet & Society and Professor at the Politecnico di Torino.

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