Tech & Rights

Italian Regulations May not be Robust Enough to Protect Rights as COVID-19 Tracking Apps Come in

Although many people seem to support the idea of relinquishing some rights to protect public health, the Italian government must ensure that the systems are strong enough to not let these changes become permanent.

by Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights

The experiences of South Korea and Japan have shown how mobile applications can be effective in monitoring social contact, particularly in monitoring people "at risk", and combating the spread of Coronavirus. The idea of using technology to monitor citizens, and especially their movements and state of health, is also gaining ground in Europe.

Most people seem to accept curtailing some rights to stop the spread of COVID-19

In Italy, the Minister for Technological Innovation and Digitization, Paola Pisano, recently invited the world of business and information technology to provide the government with the technical means to implement a plan to monitor and combat the spread of Covid-19 through smartphone apps. It is likely that the model would not be based exclusively on Big Data, but would profile the population through GPS information from their smartphones, monitoring their movements and, possibly, their health status.

This method is based on the rationale that the current state of emergency should allow for the use of exceptional means, even at the expense of the right to privacy, among others. Moreover, this argument seems to be supported by the majority of the population. Some surveys (BVA DOXA 10-19 March 2020; SWG 25-27 March 2020) have shown that the majority of citizens would be in favour of controlling their travel and social activity, thereby relegating their right to privacy and data protection rights in favour of the overriding public health interest.

Is the trade off between privacy and health one we should really expect people to make?

Today, in light of the state of emergency, the use of this type of technology life appears ever closer. In Piedmont, for example, it has recently been suggested that some factories should reopen with workers submitting to digital control of their movements. In this scenario, workers could be faced with the choice of whether to keep their jobs in the face of the transfer of their right to privacy, or to protect that right and risk losing their jobs.

Once this system of "bartering" of rights (trading privacy for health and/or work) has been validated, it lends itself to a precedent for exerting social control to protect public interests (for example, the repression of crimes, but the list is potentially endless).

To this, add the risk, once implemented, of a possible abuse of such technologies as a method of social control and repression of dissent (which has already been weakened by the suspension of the right of assembly).

The current system cannot cope with the pressure on rights

Finally, consider how the introduction of such control systems would lead to unprecedented pressure on the privacy and data protection rights of citizens, which the current regulatory system does not seem to be able to cope with.

It is clear that the potential for control and repression through the use of new technologies must be framed and limited within an ecosystem of new rights indicating the boundaries of the technologies and precautions of use.

We are in a historical moment of transition from one existential paradigm to another, from a social, technological and legal point of view. However, it is imperative to pay particular attention to the actions that are taking place at this time of emotional reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. If you open the technological Pandora’s box, there is a risk that you will not have the right tools to close it.


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