Deescalation using data: citizen control or empowerment?
In a recent article, Yuval Harari has defined the different strategies that countries are following to face the coronavirus crisis as a crossroads that will mark the future of citizens in each country: the tradeoff between totalitarian vigilance and citizen empowerment.
After the experience of South Korea, which combined the use of technology with the application of massive tests for the successful containment of the virus in the first phase, many countries are trying to accompany the next phase, that of unconfining, with technological proposals that respond in one way or another to the question asked by Yuval Harari. Broadly speaking, we can differentiate between eastern countries that choose the population control paradigm, and western countries that could choose to empower the citizen.
The use of technology has become a crucial element in China for the prevention of a second wave of infections as life returns to normal. They do this with an app built into Alipay or WeChat that classifies people as red, yellow, or green.
It must be said that one thing is to use a color code to inform a citizen and that they make responsible use of the information, and another is to use that code to control and limit all access and use of services by the population as it is happening in China.
Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, became the first to adopt the QR code system on February 11. In this city, scanning a QR code at a checkpoint with Alipay has become a part of daily life - everyone now has to scan their code on buses, trains, airports, offices and even their own apartment building.
Color ratings are not issued by developer companies but by the government. What the government is doing is crossing all the data at its disposal to measure exposure to the virus and classify each citizen. We are probably facing the biggest big data experiment by a government. All of this is possible in China because there are no data protection laws. Would we be willing to sacrifice our privacy in Europe? Probably not. What we would perhaps see in a better light is a model similar to that of Singapore.
As we have seen, some countries focus on location-based services to fight the virus. In South Korea, for example, they do so using the Global Positioning Service (GPS) to identify people who have been very close to an infected person. This poses several problems:
- First, the use of location data poses a major privacy problem. Are we willing to let a central authority know where we are at all times in order to obtain a degree of protection OF our health? In many cases the answer will be negative, which hinders the general adoption of this solution by the population (in the countries where we can choose, of course).
- Second, GPS works well in open spaces, but not so much when it comes to indoor environments (for example, inside a building we cannot determine how high or what floor we are on).
Therefore, in Singapore they decided to approach the problem of traceability of contacts with another perspective: they changed the question of 'where', for the question of 'who'. After all, it doesn't matter so much where the transmission occurs, but rather the close contacts that have occurred around an infected person.
Taking advantage of the high mobile penetration rates in Singapore, they created TraceTogether, an application that uses Bluetooth to make contact traceability. Phones with the TraceTogether application installed send each other a message containing a temporary identifier. In this way, if someone with TraceTogether is diagnosed with COVID-19, they will share their app information with the Ministry of Health so that they contact other users of the app who have been in close contact with the infected user.
In Europe a proposal has been announced by the Pan-European Proximity Registration Project that Preserves Privacy (PEPP-PT) consisting of an app with a very similar operation to that of Singapore, although with some relevant differences:
- The data that will be collected in that app will be deleted after 15 days, the maximum incubation time for the coronavirus.
- People will be identified with anonymous numbers, and positives must give their authorization so that the sanitary authorities can alert citizens who have been in contact and issue quarantine recommendations, always without revealing identities.
Very recently we have learned the solution proposed by manufacturers: the new alliance between Apple and Google for an update of their operating systems that includes a platform for governments to implement bluetooth traceability. Both companies are responsible for this system in 99% of the smartphones on the planet, so that the challenge of adoption by practically the entire population would be solved. And this system would allow moving around the world because there would be a single global protocol.
We have a long way to go to de-escalate the confinement and fight the virus. And there is no doubt that we will do it hand in hand with technology. But as already mentioned, it is one thing to use technology to control and limit population movements (even within the same city), and it is another to empower citizens based on better access to information as the European countries are trying to do, and now in a reinforced way with the help of Apple and Google.
As Harari indicates in his article, “there is no doubt that we must also make use of new technologies, but those technologies should empower citizens. I am in favor of monitoring my body temperature and blood pressure, but that data should not be used to create an almighty government. Those data should make it possible for me to make more informed personal decisions. ”
Author: Martí Fàbrega