Call Centers or Contact Tracing Apps: Belgium's Unenviable Choice

The Belgium League of Human Rights (LDH), Liga voor Mensenrechten and the International federation for Human Rights (FIDH) have raised concerns about the contact tracking system being implemented by the federal government in the context of the pandemic.

In terms of the right to privacy, the use of call centers linked to a central database appears to be as worrying as the tracing applications that are being considered. The legal basis of this central database contained in the Royal Decree is too vague and it is not clear whether the data can be stored and for how long. In response to this, LDH, Liga voor Mensenrechten and FIDH are opposing the authorities having free rein over any database that is created. The NGOs are calling for in-depth parliamentary discussions on the issue before any actions are taken.

A large-scale contact tracing application for identifying people possibly infected with Covid-19 is being developed at federal level. This app should allow us to enter the first phase of the gradual easing of lockdown measures on 11 May. Until very recently, we did not have any idea about how authorities planned to put the lockdown easing into practice. Last week, the Data Protection Authority (DPA) issued its opinion on a project included in a Royal Decree, which aimed to create a database to make contact tracing effective. The DPA's opinion is of great concern to us.

According to the LDH’s President, Olivia Venet, “the database and call centers are as worrying as the anti-coronavirus contact tracing application. They constitute a significant restriction on our fundamental rights. The application’s purpose, the necessity of which is questionable and has been questioned, is to notify people when they have been in contact with an infected person. As for call centers, it seems that their goal is to control and punish people. We do not know either what data would be processed or to what end. Therefore, this Royal Decree creates a “free rein database” which allows, as things stand, too much data to be processed for too few purposes”.

The DPA’s opinion highlights the fact the government did not properly define what data would be collected and processed. The DPA is unsure whether this data could be used, for example, to control doctors, to hire people who are immunized for specific jobs or to refuse to reimburse the cost of medical care to people who did not comply with recommendations.

People will not be able to choose whether their data is included in the database. Every person who tests positive to coronavirus will be included in the database, as well as people who are suspected of having Covid-19. However, there are no clear guidelines about how to delete their data. The project included in the Royal Decree provides that data will be deleted five days after the ministry of Health announces the end of the Covid-19 crisis. But as of today we do not know when and if this will occur.

The anti-coronavirus contact tracing application also poses numerous problems when it comes to respect for human rights (as we already made clear in our open letter to the government), although, unlike the database, installing it is not compulsory. “Is this about protection or is this mainly about control? Will people concerned receive information and advice on this issue? Or are we really moving towards a system in which everyone must follow certain rules and be controlled?”, Olivia Venet worried.

LDH, Liga voor Mensenrechten and FIDH call for an emergency debate, at parliamentary level and within Belgian society. Crises do require quick answers, but this does not mean that these answers should not involve reflection. The government must still act in a calm and careful manner, as the impact of such a database on our society’s future could be huge.

Signatories:

Ligue des droits humains

Liga voor Mensenrechten

Fédération internationale pour les droits humains