Corona Apps: Common Well-Being vs Individual Privacy


Corona apps should be the secret trump card to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a more open society. But concerns about individual privacy are never far away.

The discussion whether a corona application should be introduced in our country was, according to Belgian custom, a difficult and complicated discussion. Initially, the National Security Council did not really want to know about it. But when the telephone contact tracing methods broke down, it turned her cart out of necessity. So it was time for the next discussion: who is going to develop that app? You guessed it, that didn’t go smoothly either. Ultimately, the assignment went to the completely unknown Devside, a decision that has received a lot of criticism. The launch of the Belgian corona app will be ‘sometime in September’. It is therefore possible that at the moment you read this article you already have the application on your smartphone.

There is a lot of disagreement about whether a so-called ‘corona app’ is a good way to fight the virus. Proponents of the technology will argue that it can ensure that individual freedom can be expanded again. Because contacts between people can be accurately registered via location tracking, the breeding ground can be detected when the number of contamination increases. It is also a much more efficient system than the manual contact tracing methods we currently use. The arguments put forward by opponents always relate to the individual privacy of the people who install them. Is it really true that downloading a corona app is giving up our privacy for the common good? And do those two values ‚Äč‚Äčnecessarily conflict with each other?

Apple and Google

Those are the two companies that took the initiative in the development of technology on which corona applications are built. A bit controversial, because it is no longer an open secret that these companies constantly register our location for the use of services and applications from iOS and Android. Yet it is striking that two sworn competitors have joined forces. They developed an API that app developers can use as a basis to build their own interface, and is thus supported by both Android and iOS devices.

Every corona application is a bit different, but more or less every app has this basis. Your smartphone can make contact with neighboring smartphones via Bluetooth. That is then registered as a ‘contact’. If you subsequently pass a positive corona test, you indicate this in the database of the application. Via a push notification, everyone with whom your smartphone has come near can be notified so that they can also have themselves tested. The bluetooth connections are completely anonymized. Personal data is also not stored.

The logic behind contract tracing technology explained step by step. Image is owned by Apple and Google.

What about privacy?

Why is privacy such an issue now? Have we not been giving up our data for years to make free use of applications? You can answer yes to this question, but smartphone users today are much more aware of what they reveal. And in the case of corona apps, it is also about very sensitive data. The choice of bluetooth connection is a good one in that respect, because bluetooth only tells information about devices that are nearby, but nothing about the owners.

Privacy authorities are therefore especially concerned about what happens behind the scenes of such applications. Read as: the storage of the data. Because applications that are based on the technology of Google and Apple operate within the broader technological ecosystem of both companies. The Dutch privacy watchdog AP approved on the basis of that fact a first version of the CoronaMelder. In Europe, much stricter rules apply about the storage of user data than in, for example, Asian countries, where the corona apps were rolled out in no time. But even in those countries, implementation is not always smooth. The South Korea application turned out to have leaked security, which meant that individual data of users could be retrieved.

Not a panacea

In addition to safeguarding privacy, many questions are also asked about the true effectiveness of corona apps. For example, there is still a lot of disagreement in academia about what the minimum limit in number of downloads should be for a successful implementation. A study led by Oxford University puts the limit at 60% of a national population. From some governments there are again voices that an application can already achieve results at 10-15%. In addition, each country has developed its own application and has laid a different technological basis for it. This results in a complete lack of uniformity and complementarity between the applications. Would you go to the Netherlands, you cannot register contacts with the Belgian application and vice versa. Here, as far as we are concerned, the European Union missed a great opportunity to come to the fore and bring its Member States a little closer together again.

“The big problem with corona apps is not privacy, but that people do something different everywhere.”

Even when the Belgian corona app launches, the discussion about it will not stop. One person will see added value in this, and another will be horrified by the idea that everyone can find out his or her location. Therefore, you may download the application, but your neighbor may not. And in the context of individual freedom and privacy it may well be the case. These remain basic rights that we should not discard in extreme circumstances under the guise of ‘The end justifies the means’. We are still waiting to see how the Belgian corona app will eventually be built, but we hope that the right privacy choices will be made. An application is also not going to make the virus disappear, it is no more than a tool to monitor spreads. To win the fight against the virus, a clear and efficient policy of the government is needed, something that unfortunately we cannot always count on.

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