Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Contact tracing dreams are in tatters across the United States, with thousands of people abandoning Coronavirus worries to join protests and/or riots. The mass movement and meeting of people who have no social connection other than shared outrage is going to make it nigh on impossible for the legions of newly-hired phone jockeys actually to trace interactions between many Americans.
When Google and Apple teamed up on Coronavirus contact-tracing software, they may have hoped to barge decisively into a new world where they could track the interactions of almost every phone user on the planet. Of course, their mission was purely to save the global population from a terrible virus – but, sadly for them, this foray into superhero mode might not turn out as they hoped.
The United States has not proven keen on the Google-Apple partnership, with only three states – Alabama, South Carolina, and North Dakota – committed to using the software in their apps. According to a Business Insider survey, other states are undecided about whether to utilize it, did not divulge their plans, or have no intention of developing an app at all. With states reopening and the virus overshadowed by the George Floyd protests, it seems unlikely public enthusiasm would stretch to widespread downloading of apps, anyway. While the U.S. has been slow on the uptake, however, the last couple of weeks have seen the technology make its worldwide debut across the Atlantic.
Google-Apple Tech Sees Action in Europe
While the United States wavers, countries in Europe are racing toward a contact-tracing future. Switzerland officially became the first country to release an app using Google and Apple’s new contact-tracing software. The SwissCovid app is being tested exclusively by the country’s army, government employees, and hospital staff – except for the few hours when it was accidentally released in the Google Play Store to the public when it was downloaded more than 1,000 times. Yeah, and we should trust these people with our data. The app was debated by the Swiss parliament before being approved for public release. According to a government report, 70% of the Swiss population welcome the app, but 54% would disapprove of forced use.
Latvia and Italy are next on the list to utilize the Google-Apple software. Unlike Switzerland, Latvia didn’t have to face pesky parliamentary scrutiny. The Apturi Covid (Stop Covid) app has been endorsed by the nation’s government and developed for free by an assortment of developers and state agencies.
As Latvia has only around 1,000 Coronavirus cases, one might wonder precisely why it needs to go full throttle on contact tracing. Still, it has become clear that the actual virus is only a small component of 2020’s global push for digital surveillance. “Thanks to restrictive measures and public participation, Latvia has the third-lowest incidence of Covid-19 in the European Union and low mortality, but we must not stop,” commented Elīna Dimiņa, head of Latvia’s Infectious Diseases Surveillance and Immunization Division.
One of the worst-affected countries, Italy, launched a test-run of its app Immuni in four regions. Despite the severity of Italy’s outbreak, though, less than half (44%) of residents polled said they would probably or certainly download it – a response that may not bode well for contact tracing enthusiasts worldwide.
A few European states already had their own contact tracing technology up and running before Google and Apple released theirs. Germany, which initially intended to develop its own, switched to the Google and Apple model and is soon to release its Corona App, while the U.K. is still dithering over whether to follow suit.
France Goes Its Own Way
Not everyone is happy with the Google-Apple standard, however. France is notable for flat-out rejecting it, deciding the software just wasn’t invasive enough. The country just launched its own StopCovid app, powered by a “ROBust and privacy-presERving proximity Tracing protocol” (a.k.a. ROBERT). Despite its name, the “privacy-preserving” ability of the technology is highly debated, and, as users are not anonymous, it requires a high degree of trust in the government. In a country that’s been plagued by weekly yellow vest protests for over a year, this seems like a tall order.
Polling from Redfield and Wilton Strategies showed President Emmanuel Macron’s government enjoys particularly low public support for its Coronavirus response, with only 21% of respondents approving, 6% strongly approving, and 49% saying they disapprove – a worse result than the leaders of Germany and even the hard-hit Italy. Since the French people “literally hate” their president, according to Bruno Bonnell, a member of the French Assembly and Macron’s own Le République En Marche party, trust in government apps may not be too high right now.
France became the first country to publicly call for the tech giants to weaken their contact tracing privacy rules. Under the Google-Apple system, users’ phones will only check contacts once per day. Cédric O, France’s digital minister, however, wanted to run the signal constantly in the background – a feature that Google and Apple blocked if the data is going to be removed from the app, as a privacy consideration.
“We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied [to] our health system,” O told Bloomberg at the time. It doesn’t look like a pan-European solution is going to happen, though, given the different directions France and Germany have taken – a surprising result, but the pandemic seems to have highlighted the rifts in the E.U. rather than brought it together.
Hope for Worldwide Integration
Some still have hopes for international cooperation, however – an idea that hinges on the widespread use of the Google-Apple software. Both the Swiss and Latvian developers were quick to stress wishes to standardize their apps internationally, making them compatible with others due to a shared software base.
Srdjan Capkun, a developer of the SwissCovid app, said the technology is, among other things, designed to “enable roaming between countries, and work on top of existing smartphone software and hardware.”
“The developers believe that reliance on this standard will ensure widespread adoption and also compatibility over time with contact tracing apps around the world that are also expected to adopt the same exposure notification framework,” echoed the Latvian developers in a statement, according to Euractiv with Reuters.
The tension between globalism and nationalism once again arises. Which will benefit from this pandemic? Even highly-controlled Singapore only achieved a 20% sign-up rate for its contact-tracing app at the height of the crisis. Will more jaded populations tolerate it?
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.