The corona tracking app as an aid, not as a miracle cure

Why our responsibility should remain key


There are serious concerns about the use of apps that track corona infections. But also, there is great confidence that this is “the solution” for the corona crisis. Peter-Paul Verbeek, professor of Philosophy of Technology at the UT, is concerned. He participated in the appathon, in which he tested whether the proposed apps are ethical. He noticed many ethical problems in these apps. His conclusion was clear: it was apparent that no app could meet all ethical and social requirements. He does, however, recognise the use of these apps if several necessary conditions are met. Still, they will be an aid and not a miracle cure. 

In short

  • Corona tracking apps may be implemented soon
  • These apps will keep track of who has been around someone with corona
  • Professor of Philosophy Peter-Paul Verbeek describes how we can implement such an app in a responsible manner

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The importance of ethics

Peter-Paul Verbeek is a professor of Philosophy of Technology at the University of Twente. He likes to make his voice heard in the discussions about corona apps. After all, technology has never been used in such an intrusive way as it might be soon. “Making someone’s access to society dependent on an analysis of their behaviour and that of others- an analysis made by technology- is seriously far-reaching. We must deal with that in a well-thought-out manner. Depending on the design of such an app, a sort of discrimination could be created based on, for example, a “red screen”. At the same time, there may not even be an infection. It is a subtle difference, but it is the difference between a democracy and a totalitarian state”, says Verbeek. It is therefore of vital importance to continue highlighting the ethical side, and the consequences for our rights, privacy, and freedom of movement. 

Government conditions

Feike Sijbesma, appointed as the corona representative of the cabinet, lists four conditions that an app must meet before the Dutch state considers using it. The first condition is voluntary participation; no one can be forced to participate in the Netherlands. The second is that such an app must fit within the framework of Dutch privacy legislation. Thirdly, the nature of such an app must be temporary; data must be deleted after two weeks (incubation period), after which they lose their usefulness. Finally, the app must be “hacker-proof”. “It sounds like music to my ears”, says Verbeek. However, some vital aspects to go with these basic conditions have been forgotten, according to the professor. One of these: who owns the data? Will it remain with the citizen, the government, or will it be owned by a company that may have commercial interests in it?

A new normal?

There has been much talk about the transition to a “new normal”, lately. The “old normal” can only return once there is a vaccine or group immunity. As far as Verbeek is concerned, we must never consider the use of this app as normal. We must be careful not to get used to the fact that the government can control and manage our every step. The fact that we are implementing such an app in these extraordinary circumstances can only be justified by the importance of not flooding our ICU’s. “However, we should not be too keen on saying that the end justifies the means”, says Verbeek. “I think we can trust the state. I also think that the goal we are working towards with this is of vital importance. At the same time, it is important to maintain this free society. We must not gradually start damaging the roots of our constitutional state.”

False security

Verbeek also warns against the side effect that may originate from the use of this technology. A sense of false security can arise because we are expecting this app to perform miracles. “We should not think of this as a miracle cure. It is not going to protect us. It is not a vaccine. The virus will still be there. Such an app aims to slow down the spread so that the intensive care units are not overloaded.” In other words, we should not put all our faith in an app and remain critical. “Not getting any notifications from the app does not necessarily mean that everything is okay. You must keep monitoring your symptoms and not go out unnecessarily.”

Intelligent app

What then is a responsible way of using these apps? Verbeek argues for an “intelligent app”, which is in line with our intelligent lockdown. Our responsibility must remain key. Participating in the app is completely voluntary. It should not be a means of controlling our access to society. Instead, a way to help people take their responsibility. If you receive a notification telling you that you might be infected, it is up to the person to draw the right conclusion. Think of monitoring your symptoms or preventive self-quarantine. The implementation of such an app must be linked to an extensive information campaign to enable people to take this responsibility adequately. After all, one can only agree to something if one knows exactly why. Also, it remains important to be able to evaluate the information such an app provides. “This would fit within our constitutional state. The state will not monitor, control and direct us, but provide us with ways to take responsibility.” 

Date: 21 April 2020 |

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