The French government created a digital version of the attestation that is needed to leave your home for any reason during the confinement. Instead of having to print out a new one – or write the whole thing out by hand if you don’t have a printer – now you can plug your information into a form that creates a digital version that stays on your phone. A QR code can be scanned by police which verifies the authenticity of the document if need be. An improvement to the archaic paper system, sure. We might be in a pandemic but this is 2020 damn it!

Atop the webpage that hosts the form is a huge disclaimer: none of the information that you put into the form is shared with anyone else. The government is not logging this information somewhere. It is just a form that creates a PDF locally on your device. This is true. Look at the code and there is no server call to produce the attestation.

But of course people are wary. Coronavirus will pose the biggest threat to personal privacy in the Information Age. And like the pandemic, facing the risks is unavoidable.

We rely on technology for so many aspects of our lives and it is making confinement immeasurably more bearable (thank you Netflix!). Technology is also keeping the economy from completely collapsing via remote working and e-commerce. Technology will also play the starring role in whatever system is put in place as we start to deconfine.

The question is how. Technological adoption is uneven across populations, both within nations and across continents. Governments are also unequal in their level of authoritarianism and the public’s trust in them. A solution in a rich social democracy like Norway might not work in Greece let alone Indonesia. Places like Russia and Hungary might force solutions on unwilling populations. America’s disunity might make any solution partial at best.

Whatever technological solution is put in place it is going to have to go across borders if the deconfinement wants to resemble something like what the world was like pre-coronavirus. That means that a solution has to be palpable for the majority. China’s use of technology to lock down their country would never fly in the west. The tracking of phones would violate the tenants of most constitutions. Plus the underlying technology is different. Huawei and Bytedance are already viewed with a high level of suspicion by western powers. There is no chance that a Chinese solution is recommended.

Apple and Google have stepped up. They have created a partnership that puts together their collective efforts to add functionality to their smartphones that would enable Bluetooth contact tracing. Essentially this means that as you go through your day you are exposed to Bluetooth waves that are emitting from other phones and devices. If you are within a few meters, both devices could recognize each other. If the length of this connection lasts longer than say, 5 minutes, the connection would be registered on both phones. If in the ensuing days someone in the chain of contact is identified as having covid-19, all other people who came in contact with them would get a notification to isolate and get a test as quick as possible.

The upside is that society could get back to normal faster because people could go about their day with the confidence that if they have had a confirmed contact they will know about it. No notification equals peace of mind. Testing could also be prioritized based on the length and recency of a potential transmission. Outdoor places where contagion is less likely could be excluded. Markets and theaters could be more heavily weighted for risk. The government would not be tracking people in real-time. Notifications would go out based on past interactions. Bluetooth data would be anonymous so no one knew who they were connecting with and neither would any overseers.

You don’t have to be wearing an aluminum hat to see this go awry very quickly. A system like this could only work if people respected the fact that they had a potential transmission and self-isolated. If people did not adhere, the government would have to step in. Somewhere the information about who was at risk would have to be connected to personally-identifying information. This puts society’s information in one centralized place, a prime target for a nation looking to generate chaos within its rivals’ borders or hackers looking for the ransom of a lifetime.

So even an innocent-sounding “offline” tracing capability would still necessarily equate to the creation of the largest surveillance system outside of China. Even in the places where people have the most trust in their governments this smacks of Big Brother. Governments are also not very good at rolling back major programs. It is very hard to imagine any country after the successful use of this type of solution turn it off. And while it might seem like everyone has a smartphone these days, they don’t, particularly the parts of society that are the most at-risk; the poor and elderly. They would need to be notified first too in the case of a potential transmission.

Yet as time drags on and we all stare at the four walls keeping us in, tolerance for giving up certain fundamental rights grows. Anything to get us to go back to normal. If that means that the government can trace everyone I’ve crossed paths with, well that’s just the price we pay for freedom of movement in post-coronavirus world. This is where the danger lies. Society aches for a release from confinement. We want to rush to a solution so that we start to feel better. But the longer we take to review any potential solution, the better we will be at identifying ways it could go horribly wrong, and stop it before it gets traction.

Don’t get me wrong. I want out as badly as anyone and I don’t want anyone to die unnecessarily. Technology is key to overcoming the challenge that coronavirus imposes; through testing, vaccines, antibodies, downloadable attestations, big data statistics and modeling, instant communication between researchers, journalists, doctors, politicians, and the public. Warning bells when new cases are identified. Virtual parties, games, and entertainment to keep us going through the hard times. Tracking people with technology should not be one of the options on the table. It is discriminatory, favors the world’s largest companies, can be used nefariously by even the best-intentioned governments, and would be impossible to roll back.

Patience has never been so important if you value your privacy. A couple of months should not undo centuries of protection.

One thought on “The Coronavirus Containment Dispatches: Day 25

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