- We must look for a “new normal”, now that the number of new infections, hospital admissions and deaths is decreasing
- The Coronavirus Alert App made by Doop can help prevent a new peak when the strictness of the lockdown is scaled back.
- There are important ethical considerations and bottlenecks with the use of these apps
Will apps be the basis of “the new normal”? An app that determines who can and who cannot go outside based on a (possible) contamination, through a big-data analysis. It seems like science fiction, but we all use personalised apps based on data all the time. Websites and apps analyse all our search and usage behaviour. It was not without reason that cookie legislation was introduced. However, these new corona apps that are in the making will be a lot more far-reaching. If the government agrees, an app could determine a person’s freedom of movement, depending on possible contamination. Corona apps are already being used in some Asian countries, and Austria.
Why is such an app so important? The RIVM has issued advice on when it is possible to relax the current strict measures. The average number of people infected by a corona patient must be less than one. Also, the intensive care units must no longer be overloaded, and health care systems need time to recover. It is also important to have enough testing capacity before measures are relaxed. The RIVM emphasises the importance of apps; they are crucial for tracing the source and contacts. Finally, it must be possible to measure the effects of this transition properly, so that it is possible to make adjustments promptly.
Marcel Roorda from Twente, founder of Doop and app developer, indicates that the app he invented is different from the rest, and tailored to the Dutch legislation. The Doop app generates a unique ID that is sent to other users in the area via Bluetooth. The app does not store any personal data and stores all data internally instead of in the Cloud. Moreover, you do not need login details. Personal details are not shared. Someone can indicate whether he or she is infected voluntarily. If you come into contact with an infected person, the app will give an alert notification. “While this is an urgent public health emergency, we are committed to protecting the privacy and ensuring that you have, and maintain, control of your data.”
Feike Sijbesma, who closely monitors the development of the national corona app, lists important conditions that an app must meet. These conditions are the same as the conditions that Marcel himself has set for his app. Privacy and security are paramount: the app must comply with privacy legislation, and the privacy-sensitive data must be heavily secured. The app must automatically delete data after two weeks (the incubation period), for example. Voluntary participation in the app is also a requirement for Marcel. He does not think that this is going to be an obstacle since it is in our own best interest to participate.
When can our right to freedom of movement be restricted? The work of philosopher John Stuart Mill, now considered a classic, can provide guidelines from a moral point of view. Mill argues that a government in a free country should only restrict the actions of its residents if these actions endanger others. If someone has tested positive for corona, this person likely poses a threat to others if he or she is around people. Whether we can fall back on Mill’s principle in case of potential corona contamination is more difficult. Should someone’s freedom of movement then be restricted?
Which weighs heavier? Privacy and self-determination or the health of yourself and others? And when is the risk to our health big enough that it outweighs privacy? Those are difficult matters, and ethical philosophers are racking their brains over this. One of them is Peter-Paul Verbeek, Professor of Philosophy of Technology at the UT. He understands the appeal of the “corona apps”; people like to control the world around them, and technology makes that possible.
Voluntary participation also requires trust. Is our trust in these apps justified? Verbeek argues for a middle ground. He calls it “entrusting”. “It is important to give people the feeling of control, rather than surrendering to an app.” Self-determination must, therefore, be guaranteed as much as possible through proper instructions, voluntary participation and the possibility of deleting your data from the app. Ultimately, it is the people who make the technology, and people together are the solution to this problem.