We need a democratic debate on tech, privacy and social rights

Commentary

Tech will not free us from coronavirus, but it can provide us with helpful tools – if we foster an open and democratic debate on how to use it. 

In ancient times, people turned to God when they couldn’t explain natural phenomena that upset their way of life. Nowadays, this way of coping with tragedy seems to be to the preserve of fundamental Christian TV preachers. That leaves us with two new ‘deities’ in Europe: virologists and technology. But TV-savvy virologists are in scarce supply and tend to convey the same frustrating messages time and again: we don’t know exactly, if in doubt it’s better to stay at home, it’s likely to be another 12 months until a vaccine is found. Not exactly encouraging, even for salaried workers sitting comfortably in their offices at home; a complete disaster for the single mum who has lost her job because of closed childcare services. No surprise, then, that we put our faith in the other modern day god: technology. Until a few weeks ago, the top dog in the tech god’s heaven was AI – since nobody can exactly define what artificial intelligence is, every hope of future progress is well founded and nothing seems to be impossible. 

However, competition has been fierce in tech heaven in recent weeks and even the unassailable favourite AI has been taken over by the prospect of installing little programmes on our phones that most people had never heard of before: tracing apps. In a desperate search for an easy way out of the lockdown which is paralysing our economy and keeping our kids out of school, we have turned to the Asian countries that seem to have the virus under control, namely Singapore and South Korea. Of all the success factors we could have chosen from, such as having closed or no borders with other countries, clearly pinpointing outbreaks or relying on the discipline of the population, we have focussed our attention on the only element that can be exported to Europe: apps tracing back infection chains. The idea is that people who have been in contact with infected individuals can thus stay at home to avoid passing on the infection to others. A new horizon was opened up. Virologists and politicians called for the miracle solution to be implemented as quickly as possible. Freedom from lockdown was just one step away. But Europe is Europe: General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), twenty-seven different countries with many borders still open, closely-integrated value chains and labour markets, and a considerable number of people ready to fight for their rights. What to some might have seemed like Eldorado bore an uncanny resemblance to a surveillance nightmare for others. 

Simply importing an app from Asia was out of the question. A European consortium called PEPP-PT was set up to develop a European standard for tracing apps. Two protocols were developed under that umbrella, one of them relying on centralised data storage. The other was championed by a network of universities and came up with a decentralised architecture called DP3T. On that basis, each country would be able to choose its own app. Important technical issues were discussed among experts, leaving normal citizens – and the ministers tasked with taking decisions on implementation – out in the cold. Where the whole debate is focussed on BLE and DP3T versus PEPP-PT and how they work with Apple’s operating system iOS 13.5, the public feels left out. While these are obviously important topics, we need interpreters to explain what they mean for our lives. As regards tracing apps, one vital element for the potential success of these little helpers was completely overlooked: trust. If people don’t trust a technical tool, they won’t install it. To have any kind of an impact, tracing apps need to be used by a large proportion of the population. 

So, how can we generate trust in public authorities and the democratic process? Initially, an authoritative demeanour, clear-cut statements and strong TV presence might help. But in the long run – a matter of just a couple of weeks where coronavirus is concerned – it turns out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Trust is then lost very quickly. Politicians and scientists alike have to admit that they do not have a ready-made recipe for defeating the virus and tackling the worst economic downturn in decades. The only viable strategy is to concede that they are not omniscient, explain the guiding principles and methods used to make decisions, and share this very openly with the broader public. 

A good example for this way to foster trust and a sense of participation in decision-making is the German virologist Christian Drosten, the “nation's corona-explainer-in-chief” according to the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. His podcasts, in which he explains scientific facts in understandable language, attract millions of listeners. Drosten is not afraid of changing his mind when a new study suggests a different approach to tackling the virus. Science is a work in progress – and so is democracy. 

The same thing holds true for technology. Tech experts have to learn to explain in plain language how a particular solution works and what the consequences are or might be. Civil society organisations must ask the right questions and politicians need to explain in detail what they want to achieve before opting for a technical tool. 

Let us therefore first define our needs. Do we want people who might have been infected but still don’t have symptoms to stay at home? Then we should offer them paid sick leave or income substitution for self-employed people. Why should workers in a Western society stay at home and risk losing their income just because a message pops up on their smartphone with an accuracy rate that nobody can verify? Interestingly enough, this crucial question as to what the receipt of such a notification means for citizens has rarely been raised in the tracing app debate. The entire debate has been focussed on privacy versus health. But that was never the issue. It was common knowledge that the European legal framework of the GDPR clearly states that the most privacy-friendly tool must be chosen. There are two ways to guarantee tracing, one more privacy-friendly than the other. That should have been a no-brainer. And what about effectiveness? According to an Oxford University study, contact-tracing apps would have to be installed by 60% of the population to be effective. Smartphone penetration varies somewhere between 55% and 80% depending on the country. That makes 60% an ambitious, if not unattainable target. So, what is the point in installing the app? That’s where trust comes into play once again. Are we prepared to say: we don’t know exactly how this app will work, but if all the privacy safeguards are in place, we’re willing to give it a try? 

To foster an attitude of acceptance towards the use of technology, governments and experts need to be ready to enter into an open debate with the public and be clear about the advantages, risks and uncertainties of technical tools. A clear statement about the guiding principles and the goals we want to achieve is even more important. Just as form follows function, the choice of a tech tool should follow its purpose. This purpose and corresponding choice of technology has to be defined in a public debate, which allows everybody to understand the basic reasoning, ask questions and contribute with their experiences and expectations. Governments, which are seeking trust, have to trust their citizens. A mature democracy can achieve this. Indeed, it is the only way forward. Tracing apps are just the beginning. Ever more complex technologies are coming our way and if we want to harness their strengths without jeopardising our health, privacy and liberty, we need to discuss them broadly and openly. Just think 5G and artificial intelligence, biotech and health data storage. If we want to keep our modern European way, a very special blend of democracy, social rights and the art of compromise, we must open up the discussion around technology. It is too important to be left only to experts, politicians who pretend to know everything, and people who can distinguish only between heaven and hell.