Law in the Internet Society

Privacy in the age of COVID-19

-- By MarvinGalloway - 24 Nov 2020


Privacy is often touted as being a core value of a free democracy, however, this premise is nowadays being tested more than ever. Increasing technological capabilities are viewed as helpful mechanisms to confront the SARS-Cov2 pandemic. And while the use of technology is certainly our best bet in terms of tracing infections, we must be aware of the privacy concerns that such use raises. One country where the debate of security and privacy versus disease control is taking on a rather interesting dynamic is Germany.

In May of 2020, the German government directed its federal agency in charge of disease control, research, and prevention, the Robert-Koch-Institut, to commission a mobile app which had the intention of tracking infections and alerting users that they had been in close proximity to another user who tested positive for the novel Coronavirus. It was developed jointly by Deutsche Telekom and software giant SAP, along with support from various other firms and organizations. While many citizens were skeptical of the application at first, the developers and, some, politicians have praised its capabilities and point to the near 25 million downloads as a marker of success.


With Germany being a country made up of citizens that know just too well how fragile the illusion of privacy and freedom can be, whether we are thinking of the horrors of the Third Reich or of the wiretapping/spying apparatus and information control of the German Democratic Republic, it may be astonishing that Jens Spahn, Merkel’s minister of health, has been able to convince that many individuals to download an app that represents perhaps the most intrusive public invasion of privacy the German public has directly been able to observe in the 21st century. This does not mean that similar things have not happened in the past, or that Germans are more protective than any other western European nation, one must simply talk to members of Chaos Computer Club to get a better picture. But it is rather interesting considering that privacy concerns are regularly touted as a major obstacle to implementing new technological abilities in the country. The most notorious example of course being the lack of Google Street View coverage as compared to the rest of Europe and the United States.


The questions that present themselves then are, how does the application function, what concerns are most prevalent in regards of privacy, and how does such government-funded and advertised technological tracing affect the average citizen?

After repeatedly moving back the launch date for the app, it was finally available for download in popular mobile-phone app-stores in June of 2020. Because of pushback from privacy concerned consumer groups and experts, the early suggestions of utilizing cell tower information or GPS coordinates were abandoned in favor of a supposedly more privacy minded and balanced approach. The application uses low-energy Bluetooth technology to record and scan a user’s immediate surroundings. It tracks information regarding if and how long other users of the app were in close proximity to one another. Should a particular user test positive for COVID-19, and enter such positive result into the app, all users that were in close contact should theoretically be notified by their own cell phones and urged to get tested themselves. The entire process operates decentralized by design and is supposed to quell concerns regarding user privacy. Most notably, the use of anonymized codes that are sent back and forth between the various user’s mobile phones has been heralded by the Government as particularly privacy protection minded. These codes track time of contacts and distance between such, but do not record geographical location or movement profiles. Recently, nearly 25 million inhabitants of Germany have downloaded the app, yet, its success has been questionable as merely 130,000 infections have been recorded within it.

Future Concerns

It may be accepted that technology can significantly aid in tracing and tracking COVID-19 infections and even monitor quarantine mandates, as apps currently do in Singapore for example. However, we should ask ourselves whether such widespread rollout of contract tracing applications should remain a common feature of our societies following the pandemic. Numerous developments that were once seen as temporary measures evolved too often into staples of our daily lives, and we tend to forget the events that led to their employment. What for example will happen to tracking protocols when the coronavirus is only a distant memory, if that is ever the case of course, and a government pushes tracing onto its citizens for reasons that have little to do with curbing the spread of infectious diseases. What access do developers of mobile operating systems such as Apple for iOS and Google for Android have to the data that records congregations of people? After all, the low-energy Bluetooth feature only became the basis on which the Corona-Warn app functions following its implementation by such companies.

This draft could be improved if its understanding of the subject began from what the current draft ends on, namely that this had nothing to do with the German government, but was the result of the design for tracking APIs jointly developed by Google and Apple, to provide a worldwide technical solution. Countries like UK that began by designing their own approaches to the application mostly abandoned them to use the Google and Apple APIs, because they were otherwise too far from the crucial issue in the smartphone software: battery consumption. If the handset is to do the work, rather than a centralized surveillance system, which Apple and Google were designing to avoid, only the OS and hardware manufacturers can solve the relevant problem: a handset cannot help if its battery is dead.

In the end, it turned out that the smartphone proximity tracking solution might have been more useful with a different disease in a different set of societies. As you point out in the German example, which is just one example (the next draft would benefit from a little more information about the world, which does not only consist of Germany), the virus escaped control so rapidly that both the amount and the quality of mobile phone proximity data for tracking was inadequate to make a difference. The societies that did best at controlling the virus, like Vietnam, did not depend on smartphone applications at all.

Here too, you submitted a sketchy complete first draft days before the grading deadline, not leaving enough time for the required revision. You are better off with no grade on the transcript at this point than the marker of inadequate performance. Please submit an email message requesting an extension, so I do not have to submit a grade on Jan 8th, and we can work on the required revisions, which will undoubtedly make the draft better. You might find useful Andrew Roth, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Daniel Boffey, Oliver Holmes and Helen Davidson, Growth in surveillance may be hard to scale back after pandemic, experts say, The Guardian, April 14, 2020

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r3 - 07 Jan 2021 - 18:32:09 - EbenMoglen
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