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State Surveillance a ‘Price Worth Paying’ to Track COVID-19

David Paul

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State Surveillance

A UK thinktank suggests that increased surveillance is vital to track the spread of the virus and is a “reasonable proposition”.

An increase in state surveillance to track and slow the spread of COVID-19 could provide an ‘escape route’ from the crisis, according to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI).

The organisation argues that the British public must accept a level of intrusion into their privacy that would normally be unacceptable in a liberal democracy to fight COVID-19.

A separate paper concerning exit options for the UK written by the TBI, a combination of mass testing and contact tracing “offered the best prospects for easing restrictions and restarting the economy” and would be “essential” for lifting the lockdown.

“The UK example is just one instance of a choice most countries face,” the most recent paper suggests.

“Carefully applied, technology gives policymakers a possible way through the crisis that reduces otherwise very high costs in terms of lives lost and livelihoods destroyed. But this escape route comes with a price: dramatically increased technological surveillance.

“Under the right conditions, this is a price worth paying.”

Contact tracing and mass testing has been proven to be effective at slowing the virus in several countries during the crisis.

South Korea, who very quickly introduced a contact-tracing app and drive-through testing stations, greatly reduced the numbers of cases and deaths. The country currently has only 10,708 confirmed cases, 8,501 recoveries and 240 deaths, a much smaller number than countries such as the US who failed to contact trace and mass test early.

The European Data Protection Supervisor, Europe’s data protection watchdog in charge of overseeing privacy for EU institutions, has called for a single EU wide contact tracing app to be developed to help countries work together to slow the spread of the virus.

The UK Government is currently producing its own version, and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, promised the country would be testing 100,000 people across the country by the end of April, although it looks likely this deadline will be missed.

The paper suggests three key areas for policymakers to focus on in response to the virus, such as using smartphones to their advantage, use innovation and experimentation such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and being more transparent with the public than ever before.

“There are no guarantees that any of these new approaches will be completely effective,” the paper continued, “and technology must always be understood as a tool, not a solution.

“But compared to the alternatives, leaning into the aggressive use of the technology to help stop the spread of COVID-19 – even if the precise efficacy is impossible to quantify ex-ante – is a reasonable proposition.

“It is important to remember that these new opportunities also bring new policy challenges. These must be considered and managed properly; a crisis demands decisive action, but not that we abandon our values.”

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A briefing by the Open Rights Group raises concerns about the government’s use of contact tracing post-COVID-19, saying it must be clear about the technologies it is utilising.

“The Government is running significant risks to trust and policy delivery by failing to communicate its approach to data and privacy,” the organisation says.

“It has failed to explain several decisions, from the use of aggregated mobile data to procuring services from Palantir and failing to explain its coming approach to data-hungry projects.

“The use of personal data could be critical to lifting lockdown through ‘contact tracing’ and
‘immunity passports’. These tasks can be done with privacy-friendly technologies or invasive tools.”

It continues: “The government must provide clarity about its technology choices, collaboration with European projects and the Government’s own needs for future contact tracing.”

David Paul

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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