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
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.
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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.
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.
Download research here.