Tech & Rights

Open Letter Calls for Belgium to Track COVID-19 Not Its Citizens

An initiative of the Belgium League of Human Rights (LDH) has brought together more than 300 public figures who have signed an open letter to the Parliament and political leaders to raise concerns about the implementation of a COVID-19 tracing system.

by Camille Van Durme
Conseil d'etat a annulé plusieurs licences d'exportation d'armes destinées à l'arabie saoudite, à la suite de recours introduits par la ligue des droits humains et la cnapd-2

Brussels, 15 May 2020

Dear Mister President of the Chamber of Representatives,

Dear leaders of the parliamentary groups,

We send you this open letter to express our concerns regarding the implementation of a Covid-19 tracing system aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. A royal decree was issued on 4 May 2020 and will be in force for one month. The signatories of this open letter believe that this royal decree does not comply with basic rights.

If tracking the disease seems to be necessary in order to organize the easing of lockdown in the country, strong guarantees must be included to combine the protection of public health and the protection of rights and freedoms. In short, we need to track the virus not citizens.

These guarantees include:

Ensuring transparency to build trust with Belgian citizens

Only a legal framework that complies with privacy and data protection rules can create such a trust. The trust of citizens is essential if you want their support, and trust is earned with transparency not with authoritarian measures. This trust implies that citizens know why their data is being collected, how it is used, and that they will not be subject to constraints via undue contact from a call center.

Thinking of data protection as something useful not as an obstacle

The data protection legal framework helps limit the spread of the epidemic: During this health crisis it helps reaffirm our basic rights and freedoms as well as the support of citizens.

Collecting only data that is strictly necessary, for a limited period

Only data that is strictly necessary to give information to infected people must be collected. Data that enables the people to be identified must be deleted as soon as it is no longer needed (after one month). Anonymised data (or at least semi-anonymised data) can be further processed for research purposes by the whole scientific community, in compliance with the legislation.

Not collecting national identification numbers or national social security numbers

These numbers are not needed to trace coronavirus. Collecting them could be dangerous as it could allow authorities to create databases on individuals (containing tax and social security data, among other things).

Ensuring political accountability

A political figure must be assigned the task of responding to questions and providing explanations about the working of the tracing system. In that sense, assigning responsibilities is a democratic imperative.

The signatories of this letter believe that the decree issued on 4 May 2020 does not comply with these five essential guarantees, and thus urge the Parliament to adopt a legal framework that complies with privacy regulations.

In order to promote a transparent debate and strengthen citizens’ voices, and given the urgency of the situation, a select committee of experts met to prepare a legal draft, suggesting to include the aforementioned guarantees into a bill. This legal text aims to offer a constructive alternative to the current royal decree and can be used as a basis for discussion, in the context of a genuine democratic debate on this issue.

We thank you for your attention to this matter. We express our sincere hope that you will take these considerations and requests into account.

The signatories of the letter include artists, lawyers, doctors and judges. To name a few: Kati Verstrepen, Philippe Hensmans, Martine Simonis, Felipe Van Keirsbilck, Manuela Cadelli, François Damiens, Marie Messiaen, Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne, Jaco Van Dormael, Michel Visart, Marc Verdussen, Hugues Bersini, Olivier Masset-Depasse, Caroline Copers, Ricardo Gutiérrez, Jacques Englebert et Fabrizio Cantelli.

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