Tech vs privacy in coronavirus battle

As Europe’s governments turn to technology to track the virus spread and people under quarantine questions over surveillance arise

Governments across Europe are one after another turning to technology to track the spread of the coronavirus and monitor people under quarantine, which however is putting the region's privacy rules to a serious test. In a speedier manner, applications are being developed for people to report their symptoms to doctors, to trace and model the virus spread, and to ensure that those under quarantine stay at home, Reuters reported.

So far progress has been patchy, while privacy advocates caution there is a trade-off between any benefits to public health and digital surveillance that the European Union's privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), seeks to prevent.

Poland is a very specific case. The government has just launched a smartphone app, called Home Quarantine, for citizens returning from abroad who have since 15 March been required to self-isolate for two weeks. To register, they upload personal details and a photo. They are then sent reminders via text message and should respond within 20 minutes by uploading a new selfie. This is verified by facial recognition and its location stamp is checked against the registered address.

Kamil Pokora, who has just returned to Gdansk from a holiday in Thailand, said police were checking on him, as is mandatory. He is also using Home Quarantine, which is voluntary, but finds that it doesn't work properly. "It has many errors. I keep getting asked to perform tasks which are not even included in the app. It isn't user friendly," he said. Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on Wednesday the government planned to make Home Quarantine compulsory for everyone under quarantine.

But Poland's Personal Data Protection Office, responsible for enforcing the GDPR, said it was not consulted about Home Quarantine. Spokesman Adam Sanocki said it would monitor the deployment and, should it find irregularities, would take action to ensure personal data are protected. Poland's digital ministry said it constantly monitored the system and improved it when necessary, helped by feedback from users.

Under the GDPR, consent to processing sensitive personal data should be freely given and there are far-ranging constraints on its use. For example, it should not be stored indefinitely or used for another purpose. Berlin-based privacy expert Frederike Kaltheuner, a tech policy fellow at the Mozilla Foundation, said there needed to be clear evidence tech solutions were worth privacy compromises: "In other words: we need to know that these tools actually work."

In Finland, national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and software developer Futurice are close to launching a web and mobile service for people to report their respiratory symptoms. The only personal information that people report is their age and postcode, information the app's backers say will help map the spread of the pandemic. The government, while supportive, has not yet officially backed the initiative.

Elsewhere, governments are rushing to pass emergency laws to allow the use of individual smartphone data to trace contacts and enforce quarantines - even if they haven't yet obtained the technology to do so.

Slovakia this week proposed temporary legislation that would allow individual movements to be tracked for the duration of the pandemic. This represents a huge infringement of human rights and freedoms, Justice Minister Maria Kolikova assumed, adding, however, that she believed the right to life was absolute. Former PM Robert Fico slammed the legislation as a "spying law".

A proposal by German Health Minister Jens Spahn to allow individual smartphone tracking without a judicial order was blocked by the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition. "This would be a wide-ranging intrusion into civic rights,"  Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said.

Germany's leading virologist, Christian Drosten, said the use of individual location data for contact tracing, as in South Korea, would still need to be backed up by well-staffed health teams able to interview large numbers of coronavirus victims and trace people who may have been exposed to them. Germany lacks these resources.

In hard-hit Italy, the government has appealed to companies to come forward with solutions, while data scientist Ottavio Crivaro is leading a grassroots appeal for people to donate their data to help map the pandemic. Experts note some of these problems have already been solved elsewhere - Singapore for example has launched the TraceTogether app that collects smartphone location and Bluetooth data from volunteers to check whether they have been in proximity with someone infected with coronavirus.

A focus on technology may also detract from simpler answers. "There's often a low-tech solution to these problems," said Edin Omanovic, advocacy director at Privacy International, a non-governmental organization. "With quarantine, sometimes the best thing is just to go and have a look."

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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