The tracing applications for the COVID-19: allied or enemy?

Les applications de traçage pour la COVID-19: alliées ou ennemies?

Les applications de traçage pour la COVID-19: alliées ou ennemies?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, these applications cover the news everywhere in the world.


June 16, 2020 19h37


The tracing applications for the COVID-19: allied or enemy?

Stéphanie Marin

The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — While a second wave of COVID-19 is dreaded, the applications of digital traces of people could be valuable allies, but experts warn that this form of surveillance of the population has limits, and can also be a source of discrimination and stigmatization.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, these applications cover the news everywhere in the world : some fear them, others view them with hope.

In any case, they raise questions, and that is why they have been the subject of a virtual debate of experts on Tuesday, organized by the Institut du Nouveau Monde (INM). The Institute is a non-partisan organization whose mission is to increase the participation of citizens in the democratic life.

These applications are designed to trace and notify persons who have been in physical proximity of those who contracted the COVID-19 using geo-location data or Bluetooth technology cell phones.

Several countries are already using this technology to combat the spread of the virus and the governments of Québec and Canada are considering it. Alberta has already chosen to move forward with an application that can be downloaded voluntarily.

While the possibility of a second wave flat, the governments are seeking to prepare themselves, in the absence of treatment and vaccine for the COVID-19, pointed out in the introduction to professor Marie-Pascale Pomey, Department of management, evaluation and health policy School of public health of the University of Montreal.

Several concerns

Such applications may be able to avoid another total containment, because if the outbreaks are well localized, this gives you the ability to do “sub-target”, without closing the entire province. “But for this, it takes the information,” she said.

It has identified the various concerns of the experts and citizens : the elderly and the economically disadvantaged do not have access to smartphones with these technologies. They could be left by such a way of proceeding, but they have been hit the hardest by the first wave of the COVID-19.

However, it should be noted that in Quebec, as elsewhere, the health authorities have done this work for tracing with the help of their employees.

Citizens are also concerned about misuse of the data collected and infringement of their private life, noted professor Pomey. They do not want this technology turns against them, she said.

The risks of discrimination and stigmatization are present, as well as the fact that individuals may not have the choice to use or not such an application : for example, if the employer requires its use.

Those who refuse will lose their job? asked during the debate Karine Gentelet, an associate professor at UQO, a researcher at the Laboratory of cyberjustice and the international Observatory of the societal impacts of artificial intelligence and the digital, which is also concern violations of the rights of the person.

The monitoring of populations

The trivialization of the use of these technologies opens the door to surveillance of populations, especially vulnerable and marginalized or living in certain neighborhoods.

Professor Gentelet gives the example of the resurgence of racist acts against people of asian origin since the beginning of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Amnesty international highlighted precisely guard against tracing applications, in particular those of Bahrain and Kuwait, that the agency deems “dangerous” to privacy.

And then, problems have already occurred : the Norway had to withdraw its application tracing because of security issues and an application used in France, has raised a great deal more information than what had been promised, recalled the professor Gentelet, also an advisor on the issues of artificial intelligence for Amnesty international Canada francophone.

It is concerned that certain populations are stigmatized by the use of these applications.

Polarised debate

Jocelyn Maclure, professor at the Faculty of philosophy of the Université Laval and president of the Commission of ethics of science and technology (CEST) of the Quebec government, noted that the debate is highly polarized.

He considers that it is necessary to avoid the “technosolutionisme” (trying to solve all the complex social problems with technology), but also the “doom and gloom”.

He does not believe that it is necessary to exclude from the outset the applications, but considers that it is necessary to take the time to evaluate their benefits and their flaws.

Yoshua Bengio, the scientific director of the Institut québécois artificial intelligence (MILA), which has developed the application of tracing COVI, also participated in the discussion of the INM.

He pointed out many of the solutions to prevent violations of the rights of citizens : start with a pilot project (the United Kingdom was undertaken) and the creation of an application that will self-destruct with the end of the pandemic, as well as data collected — this is the case of COVI, the application created by MILA. He also reported that countries have developed Bluetooth technologies cheap (5-10 $) so that older people have access to them.

The speed of the implementation of such applications depends on the confidence that we have toward the different technologies, he said. But according to him, “given the number of dead, we can’t afford to say : “we will have to wait to be 100 % sure before you try something””.

Debate needed

Professor Pomey believes that we can look at the issue from the angle of a sort of compromise : how are we willing to give up freedoms (revealing personal information) to gain certain freedoms, and avoid a containment?

But for this, it is necessary to consult the civil society, considers the professor Gentelet, and to make education for people to understand what he’s talking about, by the consultant before deciding what is acceptable or not.

“It should be a substantive debate,” she said.

In terms of democratic legitimacy, “it seems to me that a parliamentary debate is needed,” she said to Mr. Maclure.

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