The Fight against Coronavirus: Does the End Justify the Means?

Category: Coronavirus, Privacy
Are we taking appropriate measures?

Privacy Icons help us to gain a better understanding of the processing of our personal data when we would like to interact with digital offers and services. During the Corona crisis, several governments process personal data without usersconsent. Does the end justify the means?

If one gets infected with the coronavirus, which has already claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people worldwide, infection chains have to be reconstructed. Information about where, when and with whom those affected have been in direct contact is of enormous importance in containing the spread of the virus. Movement data that smartphones record in our trouser pockets will be able to provide information about our locations to reconstruct infection chains and monitor movement behaviour. So far, countries have reacted differently. Doubts remain about the proper reaction in light of citizen’s rights under data protection laws.

The pandemic reportedly broke out in China. In addition to a curfew – which was still ridiculed at the time data-based movement profiles were created using smartphones and surveillance cameras. The three major telecommunications providers shared their data with both the Ministry of Information Technology and the National Health Commission. This means that practically every citizen who carries a smartphone can be located at any time. Some municipalities have also published the movements of potentially infected people on their social media accounts – to warn residents not to visit the affected areas.

In Israel, an emergency regulation allows the secret service to use movement data, which was actually collected for counterterrorism purposes, to track the movements of infected persons. In this way, the domestic secret service has been given the means to evaluate the location data of all Israeli mobile phone users without independent judicial control. Users who have been in the vicinity of an infected person for more than ten minutes are requested by the Ministry of Health via a text message to enter quarantine. Besides, the ministry of health launched a new app that is less penetrative as it tracks a user’s movement data and then compares them to known movements of those diagnosed with COVID-19, to check if paths crossed. The ministry claimed that all the information on the user’s movements is only stored on her or his smartphone, which is kept updated with the epidemiological data of known COVID-19 cases.

If one looks at Italy or Austria, the measures there do not seem quite so drastic. There, movement behaviour has been monitored on the basis of movement data. This makes it possible to track how many people are moving between the individual radio cells and are not complying with the curfew.

Now, Germany seeks to use aggregated movement data to help itself further. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has received anonymised movement data from mobile-phone users from Deutsche Telekom so that it can assess the success of measures against the spread of the coronavirus.The data show us whether the mobility of the population has decreased overall,” said RKI President Lothar Wieler on Wednesday in Berlin. The Robert Koch Institute must be able to judge why there are decreases or increases in infection numbers, he continued.

For Stefan Brink (State Data Protection Commissioner of Baden--Wuerttemberg), however, this is not without problems.We are in the middle of a health crisis. The use of location data for the control/monitoring of individuals is currently being discussed here and is already being practiced elsewhere“. He appealed, however, not to neglect the debate on whether and to what extent health should restrict the right to informational self-determination, even in these times.

The measures in China, Italy and other countries may indicate that the willingness to process large amounts of data is increasing, insofar as there is a high number of infected persons.

Whether in Germany a new balance between public health interests and the right to informational self-determination needs to be struck will soon be determined by the further developing state of crisis. As History Professor and author Yuval Noah Harari phrases it in its recent article in the Financial Times: “The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health. Yet he adds a warning: If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.