Pandemic Mitigation in the Digital Age

Dr. Alexander Klimburg, Louk Faesen, Paul Verhagen, Philipp Mirtl: Pandemic Mitigation in the Digital Age - Digital Epidemiological Measures to Combat the Coronavirus Pandemic, AIES Studies, Nr. 12, März 2020

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30.03.2020


As the current coronavirus pandemic proceeds, several governments have already utilized digital epidemiological tools to combat the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, with some early successes. The role of user-based and provider-based data collection, and in particular location data, has characterized the mitigation strategies of some of the most effective national responses. These measures may impact individual privacy rights and therefore threaten to accentuate existing cognitive dissonance within public perceptions of trust in the use of surveillance tools by companies and governments alike in liberal democracies. The danger is that the public debate on the employment of these technologies may not only become excessively one-sided but will also not accurately reflect the existing technical capabilities and data-use realities of some governments, even in Europe. But an informed public debate is urgently needed.

This report recommends specific digital contact tracing and quarantine measures (CTQ) that are in accordance with existing EU legislation, and offers a way forward to consider a principle towards "data for the common good" to help combat the current coronavirus pandemic. If additional emergency legal provisions are needed to deploy further digital epidemiological measures, these should be predicated upon multistakeholder consultations, strict time limitations, and post-hoc auditability. Overall, at both national and European levels it will be necessary to engage in a wider "digital agenda for pandemic response" to deal with a threat that is not likely to be short lived, and the ramifications of which are not yet apparent.

Among the reviewed cases (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, China, and Israel) studied, one conclusion stands out: the more democratic nations are openly deploying existing national security means, especially in location tracking and the merging of databases. The technical recommendations proposed in this report may not be sufficient, and Europe may need to consider further-reaching measures as well. Europe has significant latent digital epidemiological capabilities within businesses and government that are often not easily apparent to the wider public, and whose technical details and relationship with personal data are often not clear. But Europe is also the single largest collection of democracies and the EU represents a historic democracy project. Not only can the state and non-state institutions of democracy handle emergency provisions, but the public at large can be expected to support them – if an informed discussion is had with the openness and accuracy it requires.