COVID-19 challenges to civil liberties

In the shadow of our attempts to fix big issues are hidden truths and individual lives, reflected in the numbers. The fact that our digital freedoms and privacies are being crossed in a crisis, in ways that may arguably save lives - but that we may well regret later - was brought up at the start of the Epidemic curves thread. While we are now intensely diving into the open data for the #covid19mon virtual event, I’d like to cross post some food for thought from the forum. Here is a short excerpt, with the original post worth a visit for context, supporting imagery, and discussion:

There are a lot of people right now at home in Europe who are either pre-symptomatic, asymptomatic or healthy. You can try to perfectly quarantine people for 14 days at home (the supposed incubation period to cover 99% of transmission cases), but this will not root out me contaminating a child who then contaminates my wife up until the end of the quarantining period. This would also not address the problem of people living in communal situations (shelters, jails, etc), or the problem of not quarantining people who need to provide health care and food to the population during that quarantine.

The only way out, and this seems to be extremely robust to the numbers, is contact tracing. Note: I didn’t say “digital” contact tracing. Contact tracing is the idea that you can use contamination instances in the dark-blue region to prevent contamination events in the light-blue region. As soon as someone feels symptoms, all their past contacts get quarantined immediately - on top of the symptomatic person being quarantined as well.

This brings enormous civil liberties challenges, because we would not just talking about consent of the app user, but also preemptive consent of the contacts for their information to be passed on …

Will you grant permissions to your data in public interest? To protect your loved ones? What assurances do you need? How could we apply our technical understanding of the risks to ensure the speedy flow of information into the right hands?

Is anybody working on a dataset to track this flood of Covid-19 apps we’re headed for?

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In an article published today on LinkedIn called COVID 19: A Call to Arms to Rescue Privacy (from Itself), Digital Ethics researcher Michele Loi sums it up:

we need to rescue privacy from non-trustworthy governments . Public health surveillance provides the perfect excuse for governments to collect data to abuse, and that’s a clear risk. But, less evidently, we also need to rescue privacy from itself . If our societies do not collect the relevant data fast enough and use it intelligently, and if privacy is used as the excuse not to collect such data, it will be privacy as a human value that risks being washed out from the face of the Earth.

If you are an academic, a lawyer, or a technology person, start thinking about a model which enables civil society to collect the data while minimising the risk of data misuse. Then publish about it, and, most importantly, find other like-minded people who are willing to help you to implement your ideas.

As a citizen, demand that governments, entrepreneurs, and civil society organisations talk to you about their current plans to collect personal data, in particular plans for contact tracing, that is of utmost important for the fight against COVID 19. Demand such plans from your government if they do not have one. At the same time, do not send the message that you no longer care about your personal privacy. Be loud and clear that you want both data to be collected, and your privacy to be respected. In other words, you want safeguards about the use of your data, you want transparency and public accountability about the way COVID 19 - related data are used. Organise communities that can provide inputs to policy makers, entrepreneurs, and civil society organisations, about the morally proper way to handle this problem. Make your voice heard. Participate to initiatives to crowd-source such data, if they come from trustworthy parties and adequate safeguards are in place.

You need to demand transparency and accountability immediately: assume the topic is already on the agenda of all political leaders worldwide. The longer you wait, the more time politicians waste, the more urgent and catastrophic the public health situation will be when your government eventually decides to implement such system. Don’t console yourself with thinking your government will not set up such system: either they will do it (and they may do it too abruptly, with little guarantees of your privacy) or you will end up blaming them for not doing it, or for not doing it early enough . If new social and political norms about personal privacy in the age of epidemics emerge while society is in „emergency mode“, or as a backlash against former inaction, that’s also something that puts your privacy at risk.

(Michelle, I’m rescuing your words here from the clutches of non-trustworthy media without permission. I trust you’ll forgive me later.)

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The MIT Technology Review provided - at the beginning of May - a terrific answer to my question posted here in March:

The database is being updated, at time of writing looking like this:

And can also be directly accessed here:

The data source being this Google spreadsheet.


Over 570’000 installation of the SwissCovid app - around 7% of the population - were active as the count began yesterday of the daily proliferation numbers in Switzerland, which you can find at the BFS website SwissCovid App Monitoring.

Adrienne Fichter wrote an outstanding article today in Republik with background on the DP-3T project.

„The attitude in the DP3T team: we do not have the time for more elaborate and sophisticated app models. The virus does not care about the best, most scientific security models. Between practicability and academic perfection, between feasibility and dogma, the group decided on [practicability] from the very beginning.“

DE: „Der Tenor im DP3T-Team: Für aufwendigere und ausgeklügeltere App-Modelle fehlt uns die Zeit. Dem Virus sind die besten wissenschaft­lichen Security-Modelle egal. Zwischen Praktikabilität und akademischer Perfektion, zwischen Machbar­keit und Dogmen entschied sich die Gruppe von Anfang an für Ersteres.“

The article recommends several interesting papers, as well as watching last year’s WEF presentation of Carmela Troncoso, Encoding privacy in the digital world.