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Critical hearing in Dutch Parliament on Corona app

Thursday, 23 April 2020
Critical hearing in Dutch Parliament on Corona app Foto: Martin Sanchez, Unsplash.com

Yesterday, there was a hearing in the Dutch House of Representatives in which the by now notorious Corona app was critically discussed. The House had invited various experts and organizations (among which Privacy First) to submit position papers and take part in the hearing. Below is both the full text of our position paper, as well as the text which was read out at the hearing. A video of the entire hearing (in Dutch) can be found HERE. Click HERE for the program, all speakers and position papers.

Dear Members of Parliament,

Thank you kindly for your invitation to take part in this roundtable discussion about the so-called Corona app. In the view of Privacy First, apps like these are a threat to everyone’s privacy. We will briefly clarify this below.

Lack of necessity and effectiveness

With great concern, Privacy First has taken note of the intention of the Dutch government to employ a contact tracing app in the fight against the coronavirus. Thus far, the social necessity of such apps has not been proven, while the experience of other countries indicates there is ground to seriously doubt their benefit and effectiveness. In fact, these apps may even be counterproductive as their use leads to a false sense of safety. Moreover, it’s very hard to involve the most vulnerable group of people (the elderly) through this means. This should already be enough reason to refrain from using Corona apps.

Surveillance society

In Privacy First’s view, the use of such apps is a dangerous development because it could lead to stigmatization and numerous unfounded suspicions, and may also cause unnecessary unrest and panic. Even when ‘anonymized’, the data from these apps can still be traced back to individuals through data fusion. In case this technology will be introduced on a large scale, it will result in a surveillance society in which everyone is being continuously monitored – something people will be acutely aware of and would lead to an imminent societal chilling effect.

Risks of misuse

There is a significant risk that the collected data will be used for multiple purposes (function creep) and be misused by both companies and public authorities. The risk of surreptitious access, hacking, data breaches and misuse is substantial, particularly in the case of central instead of decentral (personal) storage as well as a lack of open source software. However, not even the use of personal storage offers any warranty against misuse, malware and spyware, or, for that matter, makes users less dependent on technical vulnerabilities. Moreover, if the data fall into the hands of criminal organizations, they will be a gold mine for criminal activities.

For Privacy First, the risks of Corona apps do not outweigh their presumed benefits. Therefore, Privacy First advises the House to urge the cabinet not to proceed with the introduction of such apps.

Testing instead of apps

According to Privacy First, there is a better and more effective solution in the fight against the coronavirus. One that is based on the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity, i.e., large scale testing of people to learn about infection rates and immunization. To this end, the necessary test capacity should become available as soon as possible.

Haste is rarely a good thing

If, despite all the above-mentioned objections, it will be decided there is going to be a Corona app after all, then this should come about only after a careful social and democratic process with sufficiently critical, objective and independent scrutiny. This has not been the case so far, judging by the developments of the past few days. In this context, Privacy First recommends that the House calls on the cabinet to put its plans on ice and impose a moratorium on the use of Corona apps.

Privacy by design

The right to anonymity in public space is a fundamental right, one that is crucial for the functioning of our democratic constitutional state. Any democratic decision to nullify this right is simply unacceptable. If indeed the deployment of ‘Corona apps’ will be widespread, then at least their use should be strictly anonymous and voluntary. That is to say, they should be used only for a legitimate, specific purpose, following individual, prior consent without any form of outside pressure and on the premise that all the necessary information is provided. In this respect, privacy by design (embedding privacy protection in technology) must be a guiding principle. For Privacy First, these are stringent and non-negotiable prerequisites. In case these conditions are not met, Privacy First will not hesitate to bring proceedings before a court.      

Yours faithfully,

The Privacy First Foundation
(...)


Dear Members of Parliament,

You have received our position paper, this is our oral explanation.

First of all: Privacy First is firmly against any form of surveillance infrastructure, with or without apps.

With this in mind, we look at three legal principles:

  •  Legitimate purpose limitation.
    - What is the problem?
    - What is the scale of the problem?
    - What are possible objectives, how can we achieve these objectives, and how can we measure progress towards them?

    It’s already impossible to answer the first question as we now test partially and selectively. The total infected population is unknown, the people who have recovered are unknown also, and do not get reported. There is, however, fearmongering as a result of emotions and selective reporting; deaths with multiple causes (die with as opposed to die from Corona) and admittance to critical care units.

    Let us be clear, we will first have to map out the causes of this problem before we can draw conclusions and talk about solutions. Not only IT professionals and virologists should be involved in this, to no lesser extent we need philosophers, legal scholars, sociologists, entrepreneurs and others who represent society also.

  • Necessity and proportionality. In terms of test capacity, critical care units, medical materials and medical personnel, we essentially have a capacity problem. So, there is no doubt in our mind what we should be focusing on, also in view of future outbreaks; testing the entire population in order to tell who is infected and who is immune, and be able to determine the real problem. 97% of the population is unaffected. Make sure there will be a division and proper care for high-risk groups. Halt crisis communication and start crisis management. Take all treatment methods seriously, including those that are not profitable for Big Pharma and Big Tech.

  • Subsidiarity. Once we know the problem, we may ask what the solutions are. Additional personnel at municipal health centers? Building a critical care unit hospital specifically for situations like these? Increasing the test capacity in order to be able to take decisions based on figures? All of this is possible within our current health system, with the general practitioner as the first point of contact.

On the basis of trust, we have given our government six weeks to get its act together. And what do we get in return? Distrust and monitoring tools. And still shortages of medical equipment. So, fix the fundamentals, deal with the treatment and test capacity and stop building new technological gadgets and draconian apps used in dictatorial regimes in Asia. And take The Netherlands out of this prolonged lockdown as soon as possible. Privacy First is opposed to a ‘1.5-meter society’ as the new normal, and is instead in favor of a common-sense society based on trust in mature citizens.

Media

Dutch House of Representatives, standing committee for Health, Welfare and Sport, round table discussion on Corona app, April 22, 2020. © House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer)