This month, we are relaunching our newsletter of great reads about the future of the internet, Net Partiality.
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Reads in the Time of Corona
LET’S RETRACE OUR STEPS: Contact tracing apps are hailed as one way we could move out of the current lockdown imposed on many EU countries but they come with significant privacy and efficacy concerns. Need a primer? Check out this handy video from the BBC. Two acronyms, in particular, have taken the European research community by storm – PEPP-PT and DP-3T. While the announcement of PEPP-PT, backed by big institutions like Robert Koch Institute and Inria, generated a significant amount of press coverage, its proposed protocols have come under criticism for lack of transparency and over-reliance on centralised contact tracing, which brings with it the risks of function creep and surveillance abuse. Some experts have disassociated themselves from the initiative and joined the DP-3T camp, which touts a more decentralised approach.
THE BE ALL AND END ALL? Enter Google and Apple, whose operating systems claim 99% of the mobile market. The two giants have announced an unusual partnership to bake Bluetooth contact tracing into iOS and Android devices, using a decentralised model inspired by DP-3T. In response, several countries already building their own apps and pursuing centralised contact tracing have changed tack. After initially proposing to use PEPP-PT, Germany has announced that it will adopt a decentralised approach in line with Google/Apple and DP-3T, and Switzerland, Austria and Estonia have also jumped aboard. NHSX, the UK health service’s innovation arm, has rejected the Google/Apple system in favour of a centralised matching process conducted on their servers. It has clarified that any additional data sharing will be optional. The French Government, which has been backing a centralised PEPP-PT variant, has come up against the same hurdle. It is pushing to jump it with more gusto, but researchers there have expressed doubts about both centralised and decentralised approaches.
NO STOPPING THE INNOVATION TRAIN: Despite all the confusion and debate, implementation of some contact tracing apps continues apace. NHSX has already begun conducting testing and received sign-off from the data regulator for its own app. And while the European Commission has published a new toolbox and guidance to encourage privacy-respecting options, some Member States have concluded that contact tracing apps aren’t necessary altogether. Instead, they argue contact tracing should be done manually.
LEGAL IS NOT YET ETHICAL: Adding another perspective, the Digital Ethics Lab at the Oxford Internet Institute has developed a list of 16 tough questions to consider whether a COVID-19 app is even ethically justifiable. Read the full article by Jessica Morley, Josh Cowls, Mariarosaria Taddeo and Luciano Floridi here and check out this blog by Floridi on the difference between validation and verification of apps. Floridi argues that the difficult questions aren’t necessarily those surrounding privacy, but those of effectiveness and fairness – and he warns against the temptation of merely political solutions. The Ada Lovelace Institute also finds insufficient evidence to justify the widespread deployment of symptom tracking and contact tracing apps. On top of that, it warns that digital immunity certificates should be put aside until there is robust and credible immunity testing.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE ERRED KIND: Aside from the risk of citizens rejecting apps that collect unnecessary location data, contact tracing apps are as yet unproven. Scientific modelling suggests that 60% of citizens would have to use the apps to make them effective – yet varying levels of smartphone penetration across EU countries and age cohorts should cast doubt on that prospect even where public trust is high. Assuming that these apps could spread faster than the disease, more questions remain about the 20-30m range of Bluetooth, which could lead to unnecessary isolation.
INFECTIOUS SURVEILLANCE: If all of this isn’t enough, concerns about the use of apps as test beds for authoritarian surveillance tech may not be all that exaggerated. More than 30 countries are reportedly implementing various surveillance methods to track COVID-19 infections, and OneZero has made a handy map.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU BUILD FOR: An interesting piece about tech-solutionism in the face of complex problems comes via Jason Zhao at the Stanford Daily. In response to a recent blog by billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, Zhao points out the problem with what he calls the ‘hackathon fallacy’ – the belief that “there is some ‘hack’ to every social problem”. Zhao argues that “systemic social issues are almost always a problem of negotiating competing values and not merely a problem of building.” In his latest Guardian piece, Evgeny Morozov similarly decries technological ‘solutionism’ in lieu of investment in public services.
Elsewhere on the (future of the) web
FAST-TRACKING THE FUTURE OF JUSTICE? A reminder that the tech response to COVID-19 is not all about apps comes via Remote Courts Worldwide, which is tracking how different judicial systems are responding to Coronavirus and accelerating the transition to online courts. Picking up on the theme, the FT is reporting on successes and challenges in the UK and abroad, highlighting that commercial cases are better suited to online proceedings than those involving emotional or personal grievances. Elsewhere, the Verge reports on digital hearings in the US, highlighting their potential for exacerbating subconscious biases and diminishing witness credibility.
KNOPS COPS TO PUBLIC CODE DROPS: Dutch Minister for internal affairs Raymond Knops has committed to a ‘free and open-source software by default’ policy for public procurement and agreed to a review of current market regulations to allow the Government to actively develop and publish free software. The government will report back in early 2021 – perhaps with a model for others to emulate.
MOBILES COME FROM THE EARTH: The Restart Project, a social enterprise campaigning to improve the repairability of electronics, recently ran a brilliant e-learning event for young people (and anyone else interested in internet sustainability). Check it out here to see a mobile phone being taken apart and learn more about the remarkable labour, energy and resources that went into assembling it in the first place. They’re working on more materials for students and teachers – including homeschooling parents.
RE:PUBLICA GOES ONLINE: Following an announcement to delay this year’s re:publica 20 in Berlin, the organisers have now announced that the event will go ahead on 7 May as a free, one-day online conference on a purpose-built platform. More details should be announced soon.
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