The need to trace the circulation of Covid-19 exposes to the four corners of the world the contradiction between two problems at the antipodes of each other. How can the dizzying dilemma between public health and fundamental freedoms be resolved?
Traffic restrictions, limitation of gatherings, individual movement tracking applications, surveillance drones have become the norm on a planet paralysed by the need to control the coronavirus.
Tracing, in particular, is presented as the inevitable counterpart of the movement of people and goods. But whether they are accepted without flinching or whether they provoke controversy, these measures frighten those who think about notions of freedom.
In Asia, where a number of countries have claimed some success in dealing with the disease, " ". Paul Chambers, a political scientist based at the University of Naresuan in Thailand, told AFP.« Paul Chambers, a political scientist based at the University of Naresuan in Thailand, told AFP.
These measures are now likely to flourish because " governments can argue that they will need more concentrated powers in the event of future emergencies."
In Thailand, for example, an app can be used to scan a barcode when entering a shop or restaurant. The ruling junta has promised that the data will not be disclosed and will be destroyed within 60 days, but also calls on those who violate health regulations to report them. And the enactment of a data protection law has been postponed.
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Tracing, the basis of epidemiology
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed a law that considerably strengthens his powers for an indefinite period. In Qatar, an app requires access to photos and videos from a smartphone as well as permission to make calls. A person refusing to download it, or without a mask, risks three years in prison.
As the Covid-19 pandemic raged, technologists around the world rushed to develop applications, services and contact tracing systems: identifying and notifying everyone who comes into contact with a carrier. Some are lightweight and temporary, while others are intrusive and invasive: The Chinese system, for example, sucks up data such as citizens' identities, locations and even online payment histories, so that local police can monitor those who violate quarantine rules.
Some services are produced locally by small groups of encoders, while others are large global operations. Apple and Google are mobilizing huge teams to build their next systems that warn people of potential exposure, which could be used by hundreds of millions of people almost immediately.
All over the world, the issue is all the more burning since, according to experts, an application must be adopted by 60% of a population to be effective. Like many others, Singapore, which introduced one as early as 20 March, has failed to reach this threshold.
France became enthusiastic about the idea very early on, but the development of the tool is still ongoing. The CNIL, the official body for the protection of personal data, only gave the green light for its deployment on Tuesday. And in the United States, according to a poll by the Brookings think tank, more than half of the population fears delegating excessive powers to private high-tech players.
The mistrust is fed by various abuses, from those of the American intelligence agency NSA, denounced by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, to the leaks of data from Facebook to the British firm Cambridge Analytica, the think tank believes. And while it believes that public health should not " pay the price for the past wanderings of governments and private companies," it points to the need to " clarify what these tools do and, above all, what they do not do."
Benjamin Queyriaux, a medical epidemiologist and former NATO medical adviser in Brussels, sums up the debate in one concept: medical secrecy. " Going to see cases, identifying and managing contacts, trying to break the chain of transmission of an infectious disease, that's the basis of epidemiology." he explained to AFP. " Are we becoming more efficient with the new technologies? Certainly. Is it dangerous? It certainly is." ...for failure to observe doctor-patient confidentiality. Ideally, a tracing application should have an " international, even universal scope", insists the researcher. But to imagine personal data protection on a global scale is utopian. There are still " 200 definitions of medical secrecy in 200 countries"
"Big Brother under the skin
The subject becomes frankly anxious if one imagines the worst. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari fears nothing less than a break in the "history of surveillance. Until now, he wrote in the columns of the Financial Times, " the government wanted to know exactly what our finger was clicking on (...). Now it wants to know the temperature of the finger and its blood pressure". Big Brother would like to get under our skin...
When it comes to technology, " what seemed like science fiction ten years ago is now a thing of the past." He adds, fearing that an intrusive diet could know 24 hours a day, via an electronic bracelet, the temperature, and heartbeat of everyone. And thus identifies emotions, anger, fear, or laughter. " Such a system could stop the course of the epidemic in a few days. Isn't that great? The downside, of course, is that it would legitimize a terrifying new surveillance system," says the historian.
So it's all a matter of priorities. Is it necessary to sacrifice a part of freedom on the altar of public health? Benjamin Queyriaux admits to being somewhat "schizophrenic". " The epidemiologist answers yes, of course, because everything possible must be done to prevent the health system from collapsing and the state from collapsing with it. But the citizen will answer that he is not willing to sacrifice his individual freedom. Sharing my social data with everyone is not good enough for me."
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