Scientists question new corona apps

Foto: Pixabay

It was one of the most remarkable announcements of the press conference prime minister Mark Rutte and minister Hugo de Jonge held last week Tuesday: research being done on the introduction of two types of apps. A track and trace app that can warn people if they’ve been in contact with a corona patient, and a health app that makes corona symptoms visible for medical specialists.

Little faith
Although the minister was cautious when speaking about the introduction of apps like these, scientists wrote in their April 13 letter (in Dutch, ed.) that they have little faith in the feasibility of creating an app in such a short time frame. “Using track and trace apps and health apps is incredibly invasive. It’s important that we look critically at the use, the necessity, and the effectiveness of such apps, as well as their impact on the wider social system, including our fundamental rights and freedoms. Whether we want it or not, these apps will create a precedent for future use of comparable invasive technologies, even after this crisis. Especially in times of crisis, one has to make carefully considered choices in societal and legal aspects to decide whether one wishes to take measures like these.” The scientists say that digital technology can contribute to solving societal issues, but that technology is rarely the ultimate solution for certain issues. They think the government is focused too exclusively on these apps.

Government is rushing things
This past week, there’s been a lot of discussion in the media about the apps. It remains unclear what the apps would look like. There are several existing types of track and trace apps, based on either GPS or Bluetooth. The latter would be more anonymous than the former. Feike Sijbesma, special corona representative to the government, said in TV programme Buitenhof that the app would probably be based on Bluetooth and would not be mandatory.

“We wrote the letter because we feel like the government is rushing this project a lot,” says José van Dijck, UU professor of media and digital society. “The tender started last Thursday, closed yesterday, the contract will be awarded on Monday, and the app has to be completed within two weeks. Rushing often hinders carefulness, and a complicated app has never been developed with such speed, let alone one that meets all sorts of requirements such as security, transparency, and privacy.”

Fundamental rights in issue
The scientists behind the letter also mention other fundamental rights they claim are being neglected. They touch upon the freedom of association, the right to security, the right to health, and the right to non-discrimination. UU professor of Fundamental Law Janneke Gerards explain what the issues could be with an app that tells you whether or not you’ve been infected with Covid-19: “The right to health could be affected if it turns out the app generates a lot of false positives and negatives, or if the app turns out to be less than completely reliable. It could easily be the case that people rely on the results the app gives them, and venture out in the streets, close to other people, and end up causing a high number of infections anyway. That wouldn’t just influence the health of other people, but would also further strain health care, causing pressure to the right to access to health care.”

The freedom of association could also be relevant. “What if people will only be allowed to gather if the app gives a negative result – think of friends, protesters, the audience at a show, the bereaved at a funeral, or churchgoers. If the app is leading, that will make it hard to gather with others, because people who have tested positive aren’t welcome. Whether that’s reasonable and fair depends mainly on the quality of the app. Can the app truly predict whether gathering with others is a risk?”

Gerards says discrimination will happen, for instance, if people who can’t afford a well-functioning smartphone have to deal with restrictive measures for longer.

More research
“It’s not that we reject the apps in advance,” José van Dijck says. “But if the government can’t meet a number of very strict requirements, you shouldn’t want this. The end doesn’t justify all the means.”

For that reason, the scientists advocate for the involvement of a broad team of experts from different disciplines in the case of development and use of the apps. They’re thinking of computer scientists, data scientists, epidemiologists, intensivists, pulmonologists, law scientists (privacy and data protection, human rights, and administrative law), behavioural scientists, communication scientists, and ethicists.