Coronavirus: State surveillance ‘a price worth paying’

A fuzzy man is spotted by a crowd from a tracking square in this photo

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A sharp increase in state surveillance is a “price worth paying” to beat Covid-19, says a British think tank.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), founded by the former prime minister, says it could offer an “escape route” from the crisis.

In a report, the Institute argues that the public must accept a level of intrusion that would normally “be out of the question in liberal democracies.”

The launch of contact tracking apps has provoked a global debate.

The document argues that all governments must choose one of three unwanted outcomes: an overwhelmed health system, an economic shutdown or increased surveillance.

“Compared to alternatives, relying on the aggressive use of technology to help stop the spread of Covid-19 … is a reasonable proposition,” he says.

However, digital rights activists have warned that an overly intrusive approach could backfire.

“There are many avenues that the UK government can choose to lift the blockade and determine the role of technology in this,” said the Open Rights Group earlier this month.

“A collaborative model that preserves privacy would be the best way to preserve the trust and trust of the British public.”

‘Unprecedented increase’

The contact tracking applications work by registering each person with whom a smartphone comes into close contact with who also has the app.

If a person is diagnosed with Covid-19, all people at risk can be automatically alerted. But industry experts cannot agree on the most effective solution and at the same time protect privacy rights to the maximum extent possible.

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The TBI document recommends that official contact tracking apps be released as soon as possible, but that they should be activated rather than mandatory in order to build trust.

He also says there should be a “digital credential” to help lift blocking restrictions. It would be a type of digital certificate that would identify those who have immunity to the virus and are eligible to return to work, although it notes that an alternative would be needed for those who do not have a smartphone.

TBI argues that policy makers should adopt privacy-focused options when all other things are the same and recommends open and transparent functioning.

Other sets of recommendations and possibilities explored in the report include data “referenced” by health systems and private companies in “real time” and sharing anonymous patient data in search of a vaccine.

“The price of this escape route is an unprecedented increase in digital surveillance,” says the report.

“In normal times, the degree of monitoring and state intervention we are talking about here would be out of the question in liberal democracies. But these are not normal times and the alternatives are even more unpleasant.”

As they seek to combat the pandemic, countries around the world are rushing to develop apps and other technologies to monitor their citizens’ behavior, often in ways that would have seemed unacceptable just a few months ago.

Faced with interrogations by privacy and data rights activists, governments have adopted conflicting approaches: Israel has collected masses of data from its mobile networks until protests have forced to change course, France is trying to have control Centralized data from its contact tracking app, Switzerland is going along a much more decentralized, privacy-focused path and the UK, well, is still quite opaque about how its app will work.

Activists warn that the public will not trust them and will therefore use apps that do not respect their privacy.

But the public can also look at the success of some Asian countries in the fight against the virus with a fairly intrusive technology and wonder if this is a price worth paying to regain another freedom: the right to return to normal.

Row of surveillance

The UK is already testing its version of the app at Royal Air Force Base in England, while France is at odds with Apple on the level of privacy it intends to integrate into its contact tracking app.

Germany has now also challenged Apple after announcing that its contact tracking solution would store all the relevant data on a central server, joining France and others in this approach.

Basically, Bluetooth “handshakes” between nearby devices are considered more private than tracking people’s GPS position. But Apple does not allow third-party apps to run the process in the background, which means that users should keep the software running on the screen or reactivate it repeatedly after interacting with other apps to prove themselves effective.

The only way to access this functionality is to use the system that Apple and Google have decided to jointly develop. This would mean matching contacts on a person’s smartphone rather than in a central location, which is what different countries want.

The German option is supported by the pan-European privacy monitoring proximity group (PEPP-PT), which aims to create a platform that works across borders. But he is facing his own problems, with several senior figures opposing his plans and dividing into a campaign for the use of a protocol called Decentralized Proximity Tracking for Privacy (DP-3T).

DP-3T is used by Switzerland and could be adopted by others, leading to a possible divided approach across Europe.

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