New tech normalcy, a scientist’s opinion
An interview with Jürgen Geuter. He is an independent theorist working on the intersection of technology, politics and the social aspects. He writes and speaks about the social consequences of the digital turn as well as the structure of the digital turn itself. He has written for a number of German and international publications such as ZEITOnline, Spiegel Online, VICE/Motherboard, Golem, Boundary2 and others. This interview took place on the afternoon of April 20, on the phone.
What is the need for contact tracing technology? Do we really need it?
We live in a time where the mainstream opinion seems to be: if there’s a problem we have to engineer our way out from it and to build technology to solve it (even with the climate crisis). Sometimes technology is only part of a bigger solution. Most of the people claiming that there is no other way than these tracking solutions refer to a very theoretical study by the Oxford University who threw some numbers at the wall. I’m clearly referring to the estimation that if 60% of the population has this software and use it perfectly this will have an impact on the spread of this virus. Looking at reality, in the countries that have deployed these technologies – like Singapore – the technology didn’t really have the impact that people wanted. Singapore had this app and then still had to go into lockdown because the app didn’t do what they hoped it would do. There are many social reasons and some technical reasons why the app didn’t work. If you look at what actually happened, you see that the technology really either didn’t do tracking the way it’s supposed to do or the technology was just a tiny piece of a much larger plan that usually includes lock down. And that’s the interesting thing, because the supporters of this system, especially in Europe, frame this as ‘a way out from the lockdown’. The idea that people can go outside and move because we have this app is extremely dangerous, because all the countries currently successful in combating COVID-19, they actually all imposed a lockdown. Data show that it works. But for the whole technological approach we have no data. What if we tell people that if they’ve got this app now they’re safe to go outside? Will it work? I think that the idea that we need a tracking system, that there is no other way than this tracking system, is flawed and maybe it’s completely false.
There are some very concrete aspects, from the effectiveness of the system to the “coverage” to try to reach this threshold calculated at 60%. And then there is the ‘privacy issue’ – what do you think?
I don’t think that privacy is the only and most important aspect when it comes to digital technologies. I feel that other consequences, not directly privacy-related, might be much more serious. Getting a notification might create psychological panic in people. It doesn’t have anything to do with privacy but I think it’s very dangerous. I also think it’s dangerous having this kind of platform established, as it might entail economic and social impacts. If you look at the distributed protocol that used to be with DP-3T, they try very hard to protect privacy and create anonymity. I feel like they’re doing a good job. But still, I think that the privacy lens is a little too small. We are telling people that there is no other way but deploying surveillance platforms regardless of how they’re implemented. These conversations are at least as important as conversations on privacy. There are things like social pressure or peer pressure: at some point you will not have the choice.
What could the long term habit of living in presence of contact tracing technology entail?
If you build infrastructures, they will be reused. I especially think that this specific app can be discontinued, but Google and Apple will integrate a decentralised approach. This will be an infrastructure that we will have to live with. That is a very political decision. Regardless of how exactly it’s implemented, this policy decision is taken by a few people who, at the moment, are not acting transparently.