This week we’re taking another look at the corona crisis here in the ‘follow-up‘ section. Where do we stand when it comes to the ethical side of all this innovation that aims to contain the virus?

In countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea, smartphone location data is used to map contacts of people who tested positive for the corona virus. Apps check if civilians are complying with self-quarantine regulations. And send out SMS alerts that enable you to find out where an infected patient was prior to becoming infected. While in Israel, the Secret Service Shin Bet uses phone records to check the movements of infected people.

In Austria, Italy, Belgium and Germany, telecom companies share anonymized and aggregated user data so that the data cannot be traced back to a single person. The system that companies use for this purpose doesn’t relay information about individual customers. Instead it compares the frequency of movements between transmission masts with previous periods. For example, the data in Lombardy show that movements exceeding 300 to 500 meters have dropped by 60% since the first patient was identified on the 21st of February.

Scientists from Oxford University in the United Kingdom are working on an app where anyone who has been in contact with a person who has tested positive is advised to stay home and self-isolate. This is a voluntary app and users can opt to share their data.

Police officer or app?

Things in Poland are already a bit more stringent. People who must go into compulsory quarantine are given a choice: either a police officer checks whether they are actually abiding by the rules, or patients can download an app. This app requires users to send a selfie within a certain period of time to check whether they are indoors. The identity of the person is corroborated via location information within the photo and through facial recognition.

Calls for the use of big data and location data are getting louder and louder even in Germany. Infections can be more easily pinpointed and contact tracing is a lot quicker with this data. At least that’s the idea. However, these plans are subject to widespread criticism. The House of Representatives in The Netherlands is also not very enthusiastic about this proposal.

Temporary restrictions

When is a government allowed to waive rights like the privacy of individuals in order to protect a large group of people? Philip Frey is an ethicist at the University of Twente and shares his views on this subject.

“We are currently facing a crisis that threatens fundamental values such as health and safety. In a situation like this, you have to weigh up other considerations. You get to make choices that put other things like privacy or democratic decision making in second place.”

Yet according to Frey, the question still remains where the line should be drawn. To illustrate his point, he cites President Orban of Hungary who appears to be using this crisis to take even more power into his own hands. “The EU is not charmed by this plan without reason. Orban is using this crisis to gain a tighter grip on the country, purely under the guise of security. Consequently, you end up on a slippery slope, where certain measures will not be revoked after this crisis.”

Totalitarian state

After all, that remains a key aspect of the considerations that governments must take into account, Frey states. “Measures must be temporary. People understand – despite the fact that they themselves may not be directly at risk – that they must observe the rules that are in force now. We can all get back together on June 1st, this is a temporary problem. You also have to look closely at other alternatives. Will we introduce far-reaching surveillance measures based on the Chinese model? Or are there innovations that are less detrimental to our privacy?”

“If you’re talking about the use of aggregated telephone data to see whether groups of people are complying with measures, I would say: no problem. The same goes for mapping the spread of the virus. It will be a different story if it can be traced back to an individual person and gets used as a means of law enforcement. Or used as a registration of houses where corona is prevalent. Then you end up with weird situations.”

Free society?

It is difficult to say under which scenario The Netherlands would introduce these kinds of measures. Ibo van de Poel, who is affiliated to the Technical University of Delft, thinks so too. “We do not have a totalitarian system. So the fact that the government is going to compel us to stay inside and monitor us just doesn’t suit our society. We’re not currently in a situation where such measures are necessary to safeguard our health. Where the boundary lies exactly is difficult to assess. You could also say that a system like China, where everything is imposed from above, is more effective in fighting the virus than our free society. But how do we want to shape our society?”

“Do you ask yourself if a measure is proportionate? Is the harm proportional to the improvement in health? I think there are currently sufficient alternatives available that have a lower impact on privacy which are just as effective. But there are also measures that can be taken so that you could use data and minimize any loss of privacy. Better encryption of data, for example. Data architectures with dynamic consent, where you can always adjust what happens to your data. Or how long it will be stored and for what purpose. I think we in the European Union generally try to find a good balance between privacy and security regulations.”