BERLIN, April 26 (Reuters) – Germany changed course on Sunday over which type of smartphone technology it wanted to use to trace coronavirus infections, backing an approach supported by Apple and Google along with a growing number of other European countries.
Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Health Minister Jens Spahn told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Berlin would adopt a ‘decentralised’ approach to digital contact tracing, in so doing abandoning a home-grown alternative.
Nations are rushing to develop apps to assess at scale the risk of catching COVID-19, where the chain of infection is proving hard to break because the flu-like disease can be spread by those showing no symptoms.
In Europe, most countries have chosen short-range Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ between devices as the best approach, but have differed over whether to log such contacts on a central server or on individual devices.
It is a big promise from Silicon Valley to a nation looking for ways to be freed from home confinement: Smartphones could discreetly detect those who may have COVID-19 and nudge them to quarantine, blunting renewed outbreaks as Americans start to once again venture out.
But as tech firms lay the foundation for a potentially massive digital contact-tracing infrastructure, Washington is grappling with whether such technology can work without becoming a hulking, invasive surveillance system.
It is a vexing problem that could leave Americans exposed to another vast intrusion in their everyday lives by governments or big tech companies.
Apple and Google, which are leading the efforts to develop tracking apps, have pledged that participation would be voluntary and include guardrails to protect confidentiality. But the inability of Congress to pass meaningful data-privacy rules — and the poor track record of many tech firms in protecting privacy — heightens the risk, lawmakers and outside experts say.
COVID-19 has emboldened American tech platforms to emerge from their defensive crouch. Before the pandemic, they were targets of public outrage over life under their dominion. Today, the platforms are proudly collaborating with one another, and following government guidance, to censor harmful information related to the coronavirus. And they are using their prodigious data-collection capacities, in coordination with federal and state governments, to improve contact tracing, quarantine enforcement, and other health measures. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently boasted, “The world has faced pandemics before, but this time we have a new superpower: the ability to gather and share data for good.”
Civil-rights groups are tolerating these measures—emergency times call for emergency measures—but are also urging a swift return to normal when the virus ebbs. We need “to make sure that, when we’ve made it past this crisis, our country isn’t transformed into a place we don’t want to live,” warns the American Civil Liberties Union’s Jay Stanley. “Any extraordinary measures used to manage a specific crisis must not become permanent fixtures in the landscape of government intrusions into daily life,” declares the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group. These are real worries, since, as the foundation notes, “life-saving programs such as these, and their intrusions on digital liberties, [tend] to outlive their urgency.”
But the “extraordinary” measures we are seeing are not all that extraordinary. Powerful forces were pushing toward greater censorship and surveillance of digital networks long before the coronavirus jumped out of the wet markets in Wuhan, China, and they will continue to do so once the crisis passes. The practices that American tech platforms have undertaken during the pandemic represent not a break from prior developments, but an acceleration of them.