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Privacy under threat from ‘messy’ coronavirus app development

The Ministry of Health seems to be going full steam ahead in the search for a track-and-trace app to contain the coronavirus crisis. The apps are being developed with irresponsible haste, according to Valerie Frissen, Professor of Digital Technologies and Social Change.

You recently signed two open letters calling on the government to set stringent requirements for things like privacy when it comes to coronavirus apps. What is your biggest criticism?

‘Apps have been developed rapidly in the past week that are supposed to help with the government’s coronavirus strategy, even though a lot of fundamental questions have yet to be answered. Even the question of exactly what these apps are supposed to do hasn’t been properly defined. How exactly are the apps going to help in the fight against coronavirus, and what data will they use? With very few people in the Netherlands having been tested for coronavirus, that data is too limited, and in many cases self-reporting is unreliable. How are you going to draw conclusions and set policy on that basis? Or, as we say in our field: garbage in, garbage out.’

About the coronavirus apps

On 7 March, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge announced the aim of developing two types of app, including one to trace people who have come within a certain distance of a coronavirus patient. Location data or Bluetooth on a smartphone can be used to determine whether someone has been in the vicinity of a coronavirus patient. A similar app is already being used in China to calculate the risk of infection, but it is facing greater resistance in Europe. The European Commission has stated that use of the app must be both voluntary and anonymous, that it must not use location data, and that it must be deactivated as soon as the coronavirus crisis is over.

Still, it makes sense that public health is being prioritised over privacy at the moment. An app like this will probably save lives.

‘You should never pit constitutional rights and freedoms against each other. We heard similar things after 9/11 in the fight against terrorism: if we sacrifice our privacy, we can prevent a lot of attacks. But the effectiveness of that policy has never been demonstrated, even though it had a big impact on our constitutional rights. So let’s think about this carefully, now we’re on the verge of surrendering our privacy in return for an as-yet-unproven effect on public health. After all, we’re talking about a far-reaching surveillance app that can monitor and even compel citizens’ behaviour. That’s a big issue. You have to be very sure before you roll out something like that. There’s this sacred belief that technology will save us, but that belief has no basis in reality.’

Minister De Jonge has been clear that the development of these apps is a top priority. What do you think of the speed at which the work is progressing?

‘I think it’s irresponsible. Over the weekend of 11 and 12 April, the ministry received more than 750 submissions for the apps. Over the weekend of 18 and 19 April, using a method that has not been made transparent, that number was cut down to seven. Some of the experts involved have since distanced themselves from that obscure process. You simply can’t make a responsible choice in a week’s time; you just don’t have the time to work with the proper care. Medicines are tested extremely carefully before they come on to the market, so why are we throwing those principles overboard when it comes to a social intervention on this scale? A lot of experts are very unhappy with this messy process. That’s why it’s good for experts like me to challenge the policy where we can, whilst at the same time offering a helping hand with finding really good, responsible solutions to help us out of this crisis.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
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