Surveillance Apps – Are we going to tolerate meticulous monitoring?

10/04/2020 | Eclectic |

We all agree that these times are extraordinary. The whole world seems to be united in the fight against a virus that we don’t know enough of in order to be able to deal with it efficiently and cool-headed. Scientists are discussing different scenario’s endlessly, data is shared and compared, diverse approaches are thought through and dismissed again. A common and effective way to go is not found yet. The development of a forceful vaccine is worked on frenetically, but so far the big breakthrough is still to come. In the meantime most of the population of the majority of the countries is sitting at home and waiting. Waiting for what? A sign of normality? A positive message? A solution to the economic disaster that we are heading to? Someone who is finally going to end this nightmare?

Let’s be honest – this is not going to happen. We will not wake up one day to everything being normal again. There is not going to be a ‘back to normal’ anymore. The damage that we caused to our economy and society with all measures that we took so far is irreversible. Even if we switched over to normal again today, we would not be able to restore what we destroyed. It is too late for that. So while most people are still captured by their attempts to stay safe and healthy and the dreadful thoughts about all the people that passed away we need to look into the future and to get prepared for the storm to come, if at all possible.

Timing and other crucial factors

One of the biggest questions our authorities have right now is how to get back to an open society after the immediate threat is over. And how can we even know when and if the threat is over? As always, timing is an important component. The longer we’ll wait and keep locking up ourselves the worse the impact will be on our future years from the economic point of view. The quicker we try to switch to normal life, the higher the risk that the virus will spread again – at least that is what some of the scientists say.

So how can we make sure that we find the right moment and make a smooth transition? We can’t as we just don’t know. What we can do is to look at other countries that seem to be ahead of us in the curve – typically Asian countries, such as China, Singapore and South Korea. After their total lock-down they started up ‘normal’ life for people who are evidently not ill. How? By monitoring them strictly. Apart from medical checks and constantly taking people’s temperature before entering public transport, office buildings or certain recreation areas the most important feature seems to be an app that people need to use and must show upon request. As much as we need to carry our IDs with us over here in Europe, people in some of the Asian countries cannot leave home without their smartphone with one of these apps on it anymore.

But what do these apps do? They track pretty much every move a person makes via GPS and communicate with other people’s app via Bluetooth. They save movement data of every user and are able to show, if someone has been in contact or even in the same area with another person that showed COVID 19 symptoms later on. If that is the case, all people warned by the app need to stay at home in quarantine again for 14 days, which is shown by the app again, so these people can’t get access to any facility. People can also use these apps as a kind of diary, entering data such as how they feel on a daily basis, if they are suffering from a raised temperature, where they have been, whom they met with, etc.

Life permitted by an app…

Now, at first sight it seems to be a useful tool in terms of making first steps back to ‘normal’ life – at least for people that are approved by the tool. With clearance of the app you are permitted to take part in public life again, go to work, use the gym and do pretty much everything you did before the big crisis. Therefore authorities of some of our European countries are currently thinking about implementing such an app over here. What seems to be a bad joke for everyone that has been fighting for maintaining privacy rights during the past decade becomes a serious thought in the attempt of dealing with an extraordinary situation. “And why not?”, some of you might think, as in Asian countries this seems to work pretty well. But we shouldn’t forget about the fact that many of that countries are still under a communistic regime and are used to be controlled and under surveillance for a long time already (think of the common social credit systems / apps in China for example). The extent of privacy rights that we are used to have in our Western world are not even imaginable for people in those countries. So implementing a 24/7 surveillance app is not an issue there but might be a different story over here.

But for the sake of our common health and the attempt to get the situation under control again every measure seems to be fine. Politicians that have been fighting for democracy and freedom for many years are now standing in front of us suggesting that the implementation of such an app would be a great progress. They certainly don’t get tired in stressing that the privacy rights must not be violated by that, but come on… Really…?!?

Let’s look at this concretely and imagine how life would look like:

  • Without having / using the app you pretty much cannot take part in normal / public life anymore, which means that it is not really voluntary to use it.
  • People that have no mobile phone at all or no smart phone yet will not be able to participate in public life anymore.
  • We will give the power of permission to an app.
  • Our movement data will be constantly tracked and stored, thus available to be analyzed.
  • It might start with authorities and public places, but we know how much people tend to take control, if they get the chance to. We will be seeing individuals asking each other for app clearance before interacting with each other.

Many people have been suffering from burn-outs, depression and anxiety disorders due to over-stimulation by social media and the digital society in the past decade – but what do you think will a 24/7 surveillance app mean to our society? Is it right to implement such a tool for the sake of an assumed safety that we want to create with it? Should a society be forced to use an app in order to live freely again? Isn’t this just the most elegant way to gain even more control about individuals by the authorities? How is it possible that we even think about this seriously and not stand up and raise our voice against this?

The fear and panic that has been sown into the heads of the majority of the people seems to paralyze our society. We seem to accept everything without even giving it a thought anymore. In a society in which we just saw the protests of farmers, teachers and healthcare personnel against the plans of the government we now have no own opinions, no criticism, and no alternatives being thought of and developed anymore. If the authorities say so, it is the right way to go, many people might think these days.

But what if it isn’t? Think about it and stay critical…