In this difficult period, where the global health system seems to be compromised, all the fundamental liberties of men are put into discussion; Privacy is an example of them. When insecurities govern these challenging times, nothing is sure and our certainties collapse. COVID-19 is the most beautiful portrait of a never-ending nightmare.
Now we stand on the precipice and only real facts can save us from the fall.
The government is trying to limit and control the infection process through several instruments. They need smart channels to monitor movements of people but Does data on travel actually mean people are staying at home or they have gone to the supermarket or to the park?
Another bunch of citizens’ fears is “being spied by the government’s eyes and tracked without being free to live their life in complete liberty”.
A powerful tool that we can use is rationality. It tells us that the overall goal of government is not “tracking the citizens and spying their daily routine”, on the contrary, it is a locator of infections; knowledge of the number of people in a supermarket or the situation of the overcrowded parks.
At this point, it’ s time to clarify another important doubt needs to be clarified: is the information from apps so useful to control and wake up from the virus’s nightmare?
Data coming from Google, Apple, Facebook, reliability, and anonymity.
One of the first sources of data on the mobility of people has been delivered by the 3 biggest Tech Companies. Google and Apple were the first ones to deliver, starting a relationship in order to improve the data collection process. Facebook joined more recently. At first glance, this data portrays a very good picture relating to the effectiveness of the confinement policies. Overall mobility has been reduced by 85% from February 2020, an effect which is shared among many countries including France, and the UK, while Germany reports a decrease of 60%. On the other side of the spectrum China, Taiwan, and South Korea are reporting an increase in mobility from the early weeks of the year, due to the reduction of the confinement policies.
One of the main advantages of this data is that it becomes in an anonymous form, without needing to be treated through different procedures in order to protect the identity of the citizens. But, can we draw the conclusion that mobility has really reduced by 85%? Not really.
The data that the company is providing is based on the number of searches on the different map services. If people stop searching on the maps the route to take it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve stopped going out of their houses. We can picture a scenario in which people are just using their local services, or, meeting with other people living nearby their houses, therefore there is no need to search on the internet the road to take since they already know how to get there.
There has been for sure a reduction in mobility and, public consciousness is increasing on this matter but, we cannot assume that this data reflects reality because it assumes that the searches are directly correlated with the movement of people.
Immuni app from the Italian Government
The quest for reliable data is being answered in different ways by the governments of the world. We’ve understood so far that to control the spread of the disease the key is to test and track. China and South Korea had a head start in the tracking part since they already had a big infrastructure able to control and monitor citizens (I will not delve into the privacy dilemma of such policies). The “Western” governments have now to catch up by creating apps for the smartphones of the citizens. There are different approaches across Europe, USA, and Australia, with the main difference being the amount of data going towards the data-banks of the government, with Italy and Germany trying to collect as little as possible. The Italian Government is working with Apple and Google on the so-called “Immuni” app; this app will not collect GPS data but will just register through Bluetooth connectivity all the people that we come across during the day. Each person will have a randomized ID, changing every few minutes and, smartphones collect all the IDs that we encounter and, are close proximity for a certain amount of time. If a person becomes positive to the Virus is ID will be signaled as Dangerous and, all the people that had contact with that ID will be notified. All of this happens without authority intervention and, they will be notified only when a person does so.
The Immuni app should be available by the end of May and, it will be engineered in such a way that there won’t be chances for the government to track the movements of people.
This might not seem like much but, being able to track the movements of infected and, knowing who came in contact with them will allow the government to act more precisely and quickly.
Tommaso Celani and Francesca Virzi