Law in the Internet Society
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The noble lie: Colombia’s Covid-19 tracing apps are not what they seem

-- By CamiloValdivieso - 22 Oct 2021

Section I - Introduction

In the article “The Surveillance Threat is Not What Orwell Imagined”, Shoshana Zuboff argues that we were wrong in assuming that “mass surveillance and social control could only originate in the state”. She suggests that, today, “the Internet is owned and operated by private surveillance capital”, and that this has become the real threat to freedom and democracy. This “surveillance capitalism” she says, has created the “instrumentarian power [which] works its will through the ubiquitous architecture of digital instrumentation”.

Privacy concerns regarding the recollection of personal data through webpages and apps are not a new topic. Since the Cambridge Analytica case, the world’s eyes have been put on “Big-Tech” companies like Google and Facebook, and the ways in which they collect and treat personal data. This continues to be a troubling matter for a great part of the population. However, it is not clear if this is truly a concerning issue for governments, or if, rather than that, they have adopted these new forms of surveilling system themselves.

By taking as an example the way in which Colombia faced the Covid-19 pandemic, this paper suggests that by adopting a tracing app, the government embraced a new surveillance mechanism, making it yet again one of the biggest threats to freedom. It will show how the Colombian government introduced a digital mechanism to collect information. For this purpose, the first part will briefly explain the Colombian government’s response to Covid-19 through the “CoronApp”. After this, the second part will explain how this app, rather than respond to the needs of the health system, poses a threat to the right to privacy. Ultimately, the paper will show that under the argument of protecting public health, governments are in fact using an “instrumentarian power” for massive surveillance and social control.

Section II - Colombian contact-tracing: CoronApp?

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Colombian government rushed to adopt lockdown measures to tackle the spread of the virus. Once it was clear these measures were unsustainable in time (due to, among other things, their economic cost), they shifted their attention to contact-tracing. For this purpose, the government launched the “CoronApp”.

“CoronApp” is a downloadable application that collects the user’s health data in order to serve as a contact-tracing tool. Through it, users are asked to fill out certain information, the application has access to people’s health history, and it is able to geolocate them. Though the government didn’t impose its use directly, it was required that employees report symptoms in the app and that people present it when accessing airports. This created great concerns among the population as to the application’s benefits, in contrast to its interference with people’s rights to freedom and privacy.

The Colombian government launched CoronApp? as a digital surveillance technology strategy that supports the public health response to Covid-19. It argued that, by recollecting data, the government would be better equipped to determine further steps to identify Covid-19 outbreaks and tackle the spread of the virus. However, many have questioned its effectiveness for this purpose and began wondering if this was the real intention behind the app.

Section III - CoronApp? and gathering information

When the government implemented CoronApp? , the application was conceived as a tool the complements epidemiological surveillance with voluntary contribution of data from citizens. However, soon after it was launched, two functionalities were added: the mobility passport and the digital contact tracing. The first one was used as a certification method for issuing mobility authorizations during lockdowns; the second one was used as a means of tracing who had been in contact with suspected Covid-19 infected people.

For starters, it is questionable whether these measures had any real impact in public health. Covid-19 cases continued rising, and when appearing before a Congress, the director of the National Health Institute reported that it did not have access to the data collected from the digital contact tracing functionality. Despite this, the government argued that given the information they had gathered, more restrictions to mobility were essential for guaranteeing people’s health and lives. In that sense, new nationwide lockdowns were imposed, national borders were closed, and air space for domestic travel was restricted. Some even consider that these measures, based on applications, lead to police violence, pervasive surveillance, militarization and stigmatization of communities (López, Valdés & Castañeda, Useless and Dangerous: A critical exploration of Covid apps and their human rights impacts in Colombia).

These circumstances show that rather than using CoronApp? as an epidemiological tool for tracking the disease, it worked as a surveillance system through which the government sought to collect personal data in order to manage citizen’s lives. Given the lack of transparency about the use of the collected data, it is safe to say that the information gathered didn’t serve any real public health objective, making the government a key player in mass surveillance and social control.

Section IIV - Conclusion

As technological innovations gave rise to mass surveillance by private actors, people began worrying more about “Big Tech” companies than about governments. While this may be true, and companies probably have more power and are better equipped than any individual country, through the examination of the Covid-19 response in Colombia this paper has shown that governments are far from abandoning their position as key players in this arena. Rather than that, they have seemed to have adopted new ways through which they can keep an eye on citizens by arguing somewhat doubtful altruistic purposes. How long these measures will last, and how governments will adapt them in a “post-pandemic” world, remains to be seen. For the moment, it is safe to say that governments need to be seen through a skeptical lens, for, as always, they seem to be relying to what Plato described as the “noble lie”, urging us to comply with measures which sacrifice our freedom for a made-up higher purpose.

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r1 - 22 Oct 2021 - 17:52:56 - CamiloValdivieso
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