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School of Law

Digital apps in times of Covid 19: an illusionary solution

How is it possible to believe, and to make people believe, that the actions of digital tracking and detection of the movements of potential patients will make it possible to re-establish a "normalized" health and economic order with an acceptable victim rate and to deconflict without too much risk?

Person's hand holding an iphone

Author: Professor Didier Bigo, King's College London and Sciences-Po, Paris


The Covid 19 pandemic has profoundly changed our relationship to life and the horizon of death. The daily life and the banality of the gestures of globalized capitalism have been changed practically and no longer discussed only intellectually. Moreover, they have been changed in a hurry. The response of governments to the pandemic has been for many a severe containment. The free movement of people has been curtailed in many places by emergency legislation. Due to the lack of vaccines and the lack of strategic reserves of available tests and hospital beds, the choice of containment has certainly slowed the spread of the virus, but it has added to the problems of care the problem of stopping many economic activities that depend on free movement. One might have thought that an intense debate on the way out of the crisis was going to begin, especially since it started in civil society, but circles of power seem to be fascinated once again by the technological solutionism of computer security.

For them, the revolution of artificial intelligence, big data, traceability will save us, and more importantly will save the system in place by favouring the same companies. How is it possible to believe, and to make people believe, that the actions of digital tracking and detection of the movements of potential patients will make it possible to re-establish a "normalized" health and economic order with an acceptable victim rate and to deconflict without too much risk? This would be possible thanks to networked surveillance of tracing applications, in order to obtain a movement under surveillance that will no longer be truly free if digital applications become part of our daily lives? Really, is this our future, as imagined by many security professionals? Will we let them conduct ourselves like herds on pasture thanks to this coupling of each person's biological identifiers with their digital identification? Are we going to accept this despotism, enlightened by digital technology, or shall we respond to these challenges by proposing to put health and digital tools at the service of citizen practices?

The Practices and the Challenges

Faced with the unpreparedness of a great number of states in the light of the scale of the corona-virus pandemic, which far exceeds previous pandemics, many have been led to fall back on the most traditional and authoritarian containment measures by blocking entire populations in their homes and severely restricting their freedom of movement. This was not so much an optimal strategy but rather the only option available to them due to the lack of effective testing, high-performance masks and hospital equipment for respiratory emergencies. 

Greece, Italy, Spain and France found themselves in this situation, not so much because they were unpredictable "cicadas" of the countries of the South but rather because of the structure of their debts and international pressure to maintain their payments at all costs. The most of offer were to evoke a very temporary repayment suspension or new credits at so-called preferential rates, in order to avoid the emergence of a discourse of pure cancellation of debt. Without going further into detail, the economic logics which had contributed to impotence at the beginning of the epidemic as a result of zero stock policies and the decay of public hospitals in the name of budgetary streamlining were perpetuated during the crisis by presenting forced confinement as the best alternative between the cost of life (in the strong sense of the word due to lack of hospital resources and lack of identification of the affected individuals) and the economic cost of stopping labour and economic activity. While some countries with poor hospital capacity such as the United Kingdom initially chose to take the risk of a massive increase in deaths in order to maintain their economic "growth" in the name of a theory on the naturalness of herd immunity, due to a lack of vaccines, other countries in Europe, with the same lack of capacity, by distinguishing themselves from this “no answer”, were able to present as a reasonable "option" what was in fact the mask of their own misery, and a return to the practices of a pre-scientific medicine based on the health police, i.e. a confinement of the population and a zoning system by the forces of law and order, supported by calls for the denunciation of recalcitrant individuals, and a moral crusade aimed at the sick patients asking them to accept their fate in the name of the majority of those who are still "healthy".[1]

In contrast the governments of states which had tests, masks and hospital equipment, did not choose complete confinement, and policies which should have remained from “another age”. They opted for a very close follow-up of individuals affected by the disease and a search for their contacts in the last few weeks to test them as well. They used a reasoning based on the networked spread of the pandemic and not on geographical blockades which only temporarily slow down the progression of the virus. China paid a heavy price for its non-recognition of the situation by the local authorities, who were afraid of the reactions of the central government, even if later the central government was then able to combine a policy of brutal containment with effective policies of tracking and sorting through a massive use of tests. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, in contrast to China, were able to respond very quickly by tracing the pandemic networked propagation and they modeled their responses around the specificities of the Covid-19, not by applying sanitary police methods. They were in a position to isolate the main sources of infection in this way, even if they also had to deal with failures in areas that had not been identified. Physical distancing was used and enforced but the freedom of circulation was less under blockade.

In Europe, Germany, which had long considered that hospitals and more generally public health could not be subjected to austerity "cures" in terms of "bed" management, and which had also kept strategic reserves of masks and tests, was able to embark on this same path of modeling the response by following the propagation through relying on the strong structure of the regions allowing a close overview of the situation and massive testing. Sweden and the Netherlands chose also this kind of solution avoiding a complete confinement.

Despite the diversity of situations, depending on the structural elements concerning public health and economic situation regarding debt, in Europe, a kind of consensus has emerged around a “technical solutionism” by presenting digital tracing via applications as a way to overcome all the problems encountered with the pandemic. Morosov, in his book on the quantified-self; evoked already a couple of years ago this shared “folly” of the technological solutionism believing that the digital supersede the real and that you can solve every problem with a click.[2] I have also shown that this shared befief was the product of the power of a transnational guild of digital technologies’ professionals involved in security matters and how they have influenced power circles in the way to manage border controls, security and interoperability[3]. As this group was involved at the highest level of the government in different EU countries, their influence in the managing of the crisis, especially when they come from companies of strategic communications and advertisement, end up by supersede the professionals of health, and turned the subject around the social acceptance of the measures of confinement and their rebranding as something radically new as long as a vaccine was not existent. Therefore, the priority was given in the media to counterbalance the comparative count of death, to the positive signs of digital solutions.

Hundreds of proposals arrived from all over the world. The computer industry, from the most powerful players (GAFAM in the lead, but also industries involved in cyber defence) to young "start-ups" are now promising to be able to track individuals by identifying and geolocalising them, then by tracking the actions of their data double, by reconstructing their past activities on the net and elsewhere, and especially by being able to associate these data with profiles that make it possible to know whether these individuals were or are sick (declared or not) and if they are in low-risk areas as the virus spreads, even if in such models there is hardly any area free of risk.

The follow-up of the virus propagation will therefore be done by collecting all data in some web servers, centralized or not, by using mapping tools, by linking the status of a specific person with her travel via a specific application, either with a smart-phones or with a bluetooth card. Some applications envisage also to have on time “flags” about the status for individuals obliged to move and to have contact with the public. If some countries consider that, for efficiency reasons, they oblige everyone to answer, in most democracies, to respect GDPR and more generally privacy, the applications are based on a voluntary contribution and privacy by design. But the fact to anonymize the data is not a proof that privacy will not be affected or that discriminations will not occur. In France the app called “stop covid” has created a huge controversy. I will not develop here the technical specificities of the apps in competition for the tracking, what is more important is to see how quickly all policy makers have accepted officially that internet, algorithms, and artificial intelligence will block the advance of the virus, and have launched media campaigns on the topic. May be, because they thought that, even if the selected apps do not succeed really, they might nevertheless debunk the critiques of the severe confinement measures by creating into the public some hope to recover partial mobility. Unfortunately this mobility is not a sign of freedom of movement enjoyed as a right, it comes with the cost of compliance to deliver personal data by accepting the measures in the name of the greater good of the health of the whole population. And this is the key challenge. The applications are not related centrally to health if they are not correlated with tests, they are correlated with the management of public opinion as if the acceptance of participating to the application (where a choice exist) was de facto a poll in favour of the government and an acceptance of its emergency powers.

A “bio-digital-surveillance” which was already at an experimental stage for some vulnerable groups like asylum seekers concentrated into camps or “hot spots” has emerged with the Covid19 as the only political "option" possible, even in democratic settings, to relax confinement. But this policy has simultaneously created a confusion about the functions of the digital apps and the medical strategies they are supposed to implement. The tasks are multifold and not always oriented towards health. They are surveillance tools tracing sick individuals, localizing them and preventing them from moving without warning. Some are also designed beyond the individual movement to trace back the persons he/she may have previously met, with the possibility to send messages or orders to go to hospital, police or town halls to register as potentially sick. Some of the apps have also the ambition of identifying via algorithms all possible unexpected encounters with a sick person, still without symptoms, and to transform these different encounters into cases of "suspicion" without the cooperation of the individuals.

This digital tracing is presented as a great innovation, but in fact it is everything except a new strategy. Its digitization gives certainly the image of instantaneity, and new efficiency, but the logic at works is old. Tracing has been considered, instead of a generalized confinement, since the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, as a better, more serial, more refined and also more democratic practice, in terms of its relation to the truth between actual patients and suspects. It has been put in place through the production of specific knowledge about the ecology of the virus and replaced the types of plague confinements we had before[4]. But to track the virus, yesterday like today, it is necessary to collect much more data on the individuals who are infected. John Snow in 1854 establish a cartography to validate his hypothesis of the role of water in the spread of cholera.

So, what is at stake between blind confinement of the people of a whole area, be they sick or not, and the selective confinement is the visibility of the mechanisms of transmission and propagation of the virus, eliminating false correlations and being able to "de-zone" healthy individuals in a given area.

Crucially for today, data collection, mapping and population tracing are only meaningful if they are followed by systematic screening through tests that are applied to everyone and that are periodically renewed. Without this two-step strategy, of which the second is crucial, there is no point to develop the first.

As we have pointed out in our book data politics[5], raw data do not exist, politicians construct how to collect and organize data, and the data in turn construct policies on knowledge foundations that are being built up and based on differentiated premises (data politics). This is true also for health. These tracing policies do not oppose directly the free movement of individuals and are not based on their absolute confinement; they aim to create personal security belts around each circulating individual to avoid contamination. Their problem, however, is linked to the factor of knowledge of contamination without warning symptoms. It is a question of temporality as much as of space. If there is one characteristic of modern pandemics, it is that, in default of a vaccine, it is now possible, thanks to the speed of digital technology and data networking, to know, more or less in real time, the "channels" of viral propagation, to correlate them with modes of transmission and to sort the populations at risk in real time, thus avoiding bureaucratic slowness (cf the publicity around google-flu), and possibly to anticipate the spread in order to allow the medical effort to be present in time or at least faster than before (as it was the case with the Ebola epidemic).

It is therefore not surprising that all states with capabilities in the digital industry are seeking to combine digital traceability with the imperatives of non-contamination in order to restore a degree of conditional freedom of movement and in particular the freedom to go to work in order to limit the economic effects of containment.

It can even be said that the focus on the digital "strategy" is all the more emphasized since the resilience of the hospital sector has previously been so weakened by austerity policies (and France or UK seem to be playing that card). The focus on the digital becomes the "mask" for past failures and risks being a pure simulation policy if the digital tracing is not linked to a generalized testing policy, because digital data are not capable of detecting anything if they are not accompanied by concrete measures such as the test booths used in South Korea and placed at all strategic public transport traffic nodes.

As Dominique Boullier has forcefully pointed out, in developing the comparison on the citizen designs or not of different applications, what is crucial to understand is that digital applications are therefore not a solution to the pandemic in themselves, they need to be connected with a health strategy of testing and a citizen oriented design[6]. If not, the applications may create a whole series of additional problems to the lack of free movement linked to the pandemic by depriving citizens of other fundamental rights and by contributing to the progressive installation (by ratchet effect) of a control society that jeopardizes privacy and other fundamental rights described below. That is why it must be stressed that current digital applications’ proposals must in no way be judged on their technical performances (including privacy design only). They must be judged by following this "citizen design" protocol which, in this case, must start from a genuine clinical definition of health objectives. If these Covid-19 applications were becoming routinised as surveillance measures for compliance with the rules of progressive deconfinement of part of the population and punishment for patients who do not declare themselves, they would be this type of ultra-solutions that Watzlawick was examining, i.e. how to fail most successfully[7] and in this case these ultra-solutions would add mass surveillance of populations and discriminations to the suppression of individual freedom of movement. This is on what we will focus now by discussing the EU context. How to limit the breaches of privacy and the discriminatory functions induced by digital tracing? How far sanitary laws can be justified as exceptions to the rules of freedom of movement of persons, for how long? And even more importantly, do we have the risk that these digital tracings continue beyond the pandemic? The European Union is on that domain exceptionally well prepared to defend more efficiently fundamental rights and privacy, and the supranational settings may succeed to limit the push by the companies and some governments towards more intrusive forms of surveillance.

  1. Vigarello, G. (1993). Le sain et le malsain: santé et mieux-être depuis le Moyen Âge (Vol. 258). Éd. du Seuil.
  2. Morozov Evgeny (2013) To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Public Affairs.
  3. Bigo Didier (2020) The socio-genesis of a guild of ‘digital technologies’ justifying transnational interoperable databases in the name of security and border purposes. IJBMS special issue 2020-4.
  4. Michel Foucault has developed an analogy between the types of sanitary policing and the forms of governmentality: Lesson 11 January 1978, plague, smallpox in Course of Michel Foucault : Security, Territory, Population Éditions du Seuil-Gallimard 2004. Translation Graham Burchell, 2007
  5. Bigo, Didier, Isin Engin, Ruppert Evelyn. Data Politics. 1st edition. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2019.
  6. Boullier, Dominique G. « Traçage en temps de pandémie: design imitatif ou design centré citoyen? » Club de Mediapart. Consulté le 26 avril 2020.
  7. Watzlawick, P. (1988). Ultra-solutions: How to fail most successfully. WW Norton & Co.



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