Tech & Rights

Worst Privacy Fears Around Contact-tracing Apps Didn’t Materialise, Due To Big Tech’s Intervention: Liberties Research

Research carried out across all EU countries and the UK by the Liberties network has found that the contact-tracing apps developed by governments to monitor people’s exposure to COVID-19 did not lead to mass surveillance, partly thanks to the BigTech.

by LibertiesEU

At the beginning of the pandemic, many EU countries favoured the development of a monitoring system which involved sending contact data on people’s devices to a central server. Collecting GPS or Bluetooth data on identifiable users through the national contact-tracing apps could have allowed governments easy access to the geographical movements of citizens, creating a state of mass surveillance.

Apple and Google objected mass surveillance

Instead Apple and Google objected, and proposed the Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) system where a user’s data never left the person’s device. This effectively killed off attempts by governments to use a central server.

Although this development was welcome, it does raise questions about whether Big Tech will act so benevolently in the future given their lack of democratic accountability.

Orsolya Reich, Senior Advocacy Officer at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), said: “It’s ironic that citizens have Big Tech companies to thank for protecting their privacy with these contact-tracing apps, particularly given how these companies have been pioneers in monetising people’s data and creating online commercial surveillance in the first place. Our elected, democratic governments, who have an obligation to protect our privacy, were interested in creating central databases of people’s data, which could have allowed governments easy access to the social networks of their citizens. Thankfully, this didn’t happen.”

Concerns around lack of transparency or public debate

Concerns around lack of transparency Liberties is nevertheless concerned at the lack of public debate around the development and use of these apps. Because of the inherent risks of something that monitors whom we meet, such apps can be seen as a disproportionate interference in people’s personal privacy sphere, with knock-on effects for civil and political rights in general, such as freedom of expression and information and freedom of assembly and association.

Yet governments were quick to push for the development of these apps without ever consulting their populations about the need or wish for them. In many cases, the development of these apps didn’t follow standard public procurement rules and there was very little information about how governments awarded their contracts.

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The apps have generally suffered from a poor download rate and promotion, meaning that the apps were heavily underused in some countries, such as Croatia where only 2% of the population downloaded it. The highest adoption rates (between almost 60% and 30%) happened in England and Wales, Ireland, Finland, Denmark and Germany. In a number of countries, the apps simply disappeared from circulation without any notice.

Liberties’ members and partners intend to publish findings in the second half of 2021 on the efficacy of these apps and whether they had any social impact.

Visit our COVID-19 Tracing App Knowledge Information Hub here.

Download research here.

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