To fight the pandemic, all means are allowed. Especially and especially if they are digital. Mass surveillance, individual tracking apps: more and more countries are using state-of-the-art technologies to track Covid-19 carriers via their mobile phones, but also to ensure that confinement is respected.
China, South Korea, Singapore, and even Israel or Germany are among the pioneers of these techniques, while in Africa, Ghana boasts of being at the forefront in this field: on April 3, the NGO Flowminder Foundation and the British operator Vodaphone have published a first report on the movements of Ghanaians during confinement.
"Technologies ready for a long time"
France is also preparing for "backtracking" or digital tracing. Prime Minister Édouard Phillipe is expected to announce initiatives in this direction in the coming days. While the launch of an individual application allowing to store all the history of the people we met is notably planned, Olivier Véran and Cédric O, respectively Minister of Health and Secretary of State for Digital, have assured that this device would be based on volunteering.
These tools are only possible with the support of telephone operators and web giants. In this case, on April 3, Google published a report on the displacement of populations via geolocation in 131 countries. A sign that the authorities can count on the Mountain View company to help them enforce the rules of containment.
"It's crazy to see the speed with which these technologies have been implemented in all these countries," remarks François Jeanne-Beylot. But no wonder, believes this expert in economic intelligence, manager-founder of the company Troover-InMédiatic: "These technologies have been ready for a long time. There was just an opportunity missing to use them". François Jeanne-Beylot has just created a monitoring site on this issue. There is a planisphere including a country-by-country analysis of ethical and regulatory risks.
China, a foil or a source of inspiration?
In China, it is impossible to circulate if you do not benefit from the Alipay Health app, a real pass, developed by the e-commerce giant AliBaba. It shows a color code on your smartphone: green for free movement, yellow for quarantines of seven days and red for double. According to an article in the New York Times, this application is configured to inform the police and serve beyond the health crisis.
The Chinese model, a foil for democracies? While refraining from being inspired by it, many countries have nevertheless taken the same path.
In South Korea, an app to alert if you approach a patient
In early March, the South Korean Ministry of the Interior and Security opened the ball of democracies by developing a smartphone application to verify that infected people respect confinement.
But in this country, the private initiative had outstripped public service with the launch, on February 11, of the Corona 100 application, which uses government data to alert users when they approach within 100 meters from a place frequented by a patient. A real success: it was downloaded over a million times in the first days.
In Taiwan, the government is building a veritable electronic wall of China against contaminated or suspected persons. They are followed up by telephone geolocation, the aim being to ensure that they do not leave their home. Otherwise or if their phone is turned off, a police patrol disembarks within 15 minutes.
In Switzerland, the operator Swisscom cooperates with the authorities
In Europe, Switzerland has been monitoring the movements of its citizens since March 25 by interrogating the SIM cards of their mobile phones in collaboration with the telecom operator Swisscom.
According to information collected by the Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps, the operator alerts the authorities as soon as 20 or more people gather within a perimeter of 100 square meters, knowing that since March 21, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited. These geolocation data are transferred to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), which is responsible for notifying the police.
"In Switzerland, explains Frans Imbert-Vier, CEO of UBCOM, a Swiss firm specializing in the protection of digital secrecy, these methods are not shocking, because discipline is a matter of general interest. I am much more worried about the France. Once these cybersurveillance procedures are in place, there is a strong fear that they will be used in other circumstances. "
Brussels is interested in telephone data
It's Brussels' turn to embark on digital tracing. Following a meeting on March 23 with Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the European Market and Digital, eight operators, including Orange, Deutsch Telekom, Vodafone and Telecom Italia have agreed to transmit the anonymized data of their subscribers to Joint research center to help the scientific service of the European Commission to analyze the spread of the virus during confinement.
To prepare the ground for the system, Roberto Viola, director general of the Connect department (Communication, networks, content and technology), had the principle validated by the European Data Protection Supervisor. In this undated letter, he replied publicly, acknowledging that European law was sufficiently "flexible" to adopt such measures in the event of a crisis. And to clarify that "anonymized data does not fall within the scope of the data protection rules".
Telephone data crossed with that of bank cards
In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Health cross-reference the geolocation data of mobile phones with that of bank cards to trace the journeys of infected people.
In Poland, the Home Quarantine app requires all visitors who have entered the country since March 15 and are confined to declare themselves by regularly uploading information on their state of health as well as selfies.
Finland is also considering an application to report certain symptoms as breathing difficulties. A statement that could only be made from the person's postal code.
France is spinning its digital weapons
In France, the telephone operator Orange, which owns 40% of the mobile market in France, shares customer data with the National Institute for Medical Research (Inserm) in order to track the movements of its subscribers throughout France and cross them with the foci of infection, the virus spread map or even the hospital reception capacities.
To do this, the operator has a tool designed for this type of mission: Flux Vision. "Until now, this tool was used in particular by local authorities wishing to manage the flow of tourists or vehicles," explains an Orange executive who prefers to remain anonymous. "The data is completely anonymized."
In his eyes, it is not the tool developed by his company that is problematic. The real danger, he said, lies in the lists of infected patients that the medical profession would agree to deliver to public authorities. "We refuse to enter this dangerous game," he said. "We are not in China. But if a law obliges us to deliver our non-anonymized data to the government, we will do it. It is the state that will make the decision to cross them with that of the doctors. "
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