Contact-tracing apps could be our Orwellian nightmare, says expert

Various European countries are developing contact tracing applications for smartphones to slow the spread of COVID-19

“Unless they are deployed very carefully and within the tightest of constraints, these apps could make Orwell’s Big Brother look like a forgetful kindergarten assistant”
“Unless they are deployed very carefully and within the tightest of constraints, these apps could make Orwell’s Big Brother look like a forgetful kindergarten assistant”

Various European countries are developing contact tracing applications for smartphones to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The concept is relatively simple. The contact tracing apps will identify and alert people who have come into significant contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.

Once the app is told that a certain person has contracted COVID-19, it can quickly and automatically determine – using Bluetooth or the phone’s GPS function – which other people have been in proximity to that individual.

Such a technology would rely on most smartphone users – UK experts estimate 80% – downloading and using the app for it to be effective. In Italy, the testing process of one such app has already begun, with the government hoping it can be used as a tool to aid the lifting of the nationwide lockdown.

In Britain, the plan is to introduce the app towards the end of the lockdown, with authorities hoping that the technology, combined with other preventative measures such as hand-washing and social distancing for the most vulnerable, will prevent a second peak in infections.

Despite the benefits of contact tracing apps, there are also serious concerns related to the privacy of users’ data, however.

Apps which are geolocation-based would use the phone’s GPS function to trace contacts, and this raises the issue of users’ personal location data being handed over to a central database. Using Bluetooth to identify contacts might offer users more privacy, but the caveat is that some smartphones don’t support the Bluetooth Low Energy system which is necessary to make such an app work.

Another issue is related to whether using such an app will be voluntary or otherwise. The success of a voluntary model is unclear, with Singapore – which was one of the first countries to launch a voluntary contact-tracing app, TraceTogether – finding that only 12% of the population installed it.

If using such an app were obligatory, this would raise further questions on privacy and the sharing of users’ data.

Privacy expert Prof. Joe Cannataci
Privacy expert Prof. Joe Cannataci

Prof. Joe Cannataci, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, has described smartphone and other contact-tracing apps as potentially being “amongst the most privacy-intrusive developments in technology in the last twenty years”.

“Unless they are deployed very carefully and within the tightest of constraints, they could be abused in order to introduce a level of surveillance which would make Orwell’s Big Brother look like a forgetful kindergarten assistant,” Cannataci said.

He noted that Malta, being an EU member, is fortunate in that it automatically enjoys the safeguards and remedies offered by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“Indeed, the EU is seeking to ensure that all apps deployed in its territory comply with those standards of protection set out in the GDPR, which are, very literally, the highest in the world. Indeed, until now, the EU is generally only favouring apps which a citizen would download and use voluntarily,” Cannataci highlighted.

Earlier this week, in fact, EU countries agreed that COVID-19 mobile apps should not process individual’s location data and should be both temporary and voluntary.

The situation in the rest of the world, however, is somewhat different.

“This is quite different from the situation in say, South Korea, or Israel, where app-based or geolocation-based contact tracing is carried out whether the individual citizen wishes or not,” Cannataci said

Malta, he said, is also a signatory to the Council of Europe’s 1981 Data Protection Treaty (Convention 108) which would require that the introduction of contact tracing technology only be done if specifically provided for by law and if it meets strict tests, such as those of necessity and proportionality in a democratic society.

“Is a contact-tracing app an absolutely necessary ‘must have’ to defeat COVID-19? If it is just ‘nice to have’ then it does not meet strict European standards in privacy and data protection,” he underscored.

Cannataci said that, in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on privacy, he and his team are working hard to prepare a study and recommendations about COVID-19 and surveillance.

While the study is planned to be presented at the UN General Assembly in New York in October, Cannataci emphasised that this would not be the final word on the subject since the situation remained fluid.

“The picture one would have by October 2020 would necessarily be incomplete and I expect to issue a second report around this time next year, examining all the evidence then available in order to determine if apps such as the ones mentioned here – and others – are necessary and proportionate measures in a democratic society, or pure overkill,” he said.

“There are many confounding variables which can distort analysis, but what is going to happen if, in a year or two, we would realise that the introduction of such apps, or indeed even more invasive contact tracing using mobile phone data, did not significantly arrest the impact of COVID-19?” he asked.

Cannataci also questions, more importantly, whether governments would even think of mothballing contact-tracing technologies after COVID-19. Or would they yield to the temptation to use them to monitor and control the population, long after any health pandemic is over?

“It’s the control-freak’s dream scenario and potentially a human rights nightmare,” Cannataci stressed, warning that “it can make a totalitarian ruler’s dream of absolute control come true.”

“Extreme vigilance and careful scrutiny are required,” he added.

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