To do without digital tools in the fight against Corona would be ethically unjustifiable. However, a prerequisite is that digital civil rights are enforced consistently.
If you want to fight the disease, you have to monitor patients and citizens. Local, national and worldwide. The technology for the largest surveillance apparatus in human history was in use long before the pandemic. Not only in China, but also in the democracies of the West, tracking, location, contact analysis and rating systems are part of everyday digital life. This is used for advertising, feeds big data machines like Google Maps and has long been misused, for example by the American secret service NSA or by the social network Facebook. Data protection is a legal claim that is far from being as universal as other civil rights. But he should. More than ever. Especially when you have to temporarily suspend it, like now.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden, who uncovered the NSA scandal six and a half years ago, spoke up on Monday. In view of the global measures to combat the corona pandemic with digital measures, he sees an acute danger that surveillance mechanisms will now emerge that will never be reversed. The experiences from the NSA scandal in particular show that state control mechanisms develop a life of their own from a crisis such as the attacks on September 11th, which are also steered past the parliament and the judiciary by the executive in a democracy.
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However, the general threat to the pandemic is far greater than the threat posed by Islamist terror. It would be ethically unjustifiable not to use digital methods if governments could not only save a lot of lives, but also livelihoods, jobs, educational pathways and nerves of nerves, because this would restore normal conditions faster.
It would be ethically unjustifiable to do without digital aids
These are very simple calculations. If an authority has to notify the contact persons of a Covid patient by phone and in person, this takes a lot of staff and time, apart from the error rate. A digital capture of personal networks, as has long been the norm in social networks and secured by terms and conditions, could do the job in a matter of seconds, including notifying the contact persons.
The discussion about digital surveillance is currently going in the right direction. The model for the warning system for contact persons is not China, but an app from Singapore that works with Bluetooth and is used with data protection. Lawyers explained this well on netzpolitik.org. Requests to use cell phone data over a wide area were initially denied. At least that was the status at the time of going to press.
Is there a new two-tier society?
However, the further course of the pandemic is not yet in sight, nor are the measures that will be necessary to achieve a national and global normal situation. Will vaccination certificates be needed to travel in the future? Will the United States impose restrictive travel conditions on the rest of the world, as they did after 9/11? Will there be a – perhaps only temporary – two-tier society of the vaccinated or immune and the vulnerable? All of these are conditions that require digital monitoring. All of these are methods that endanger civil rights in the long term.
That is why it is now the time to hold the long smoldering debate about digital civil rights and to take consequences. Data sovereignty is not a luxury. The digital space needs a system of “checks and balances”, of democratic control mechanisms. Not only because examples of how autocrats and sham democrats are using the pandemic to build their power are piling up. The debate about digital rights and regulations has been going on for a long time even in free democracies and has brought only few results. The forces that affect the digital twin of every user in Germany and Europe are greater than most people know.
If the executive and its strong men and women need digital instruments in the pandemic maelstrom, they cannot be denied them. But parliament and the judiciary have to make decisions about what to do with it and how far it can be dealt with. If they lack the expertise, there are enough civil organizations in Germany that they can contribute. Above all (and despite the name) the Chaos Computer Club, but also Algorithm Watch, the editor of Network policy or German representatives of European Digital Rights.
Digital space has never been as important as it is now. He has never shown his strengths like this. This is precisely why the pressure to design it now is increasing. Because if a society gives up freedoms without control at the moment of need and fear that it has long fought for, it will not automatically regain them.