‘We should now lay the foundation for the use of well-designed technology to serve the public cause’

Essay – May 28th, 2020

By Ben van Berkel, Ren Yee, Connor Cook, Sjoerd Bakker, Machteld van Hulten

The current lockdowns across the globe, while safeguarding our health, are a threat to national economies – that’s how it is often framed. This proposition suggests a contraposition of health vs economy that actually does not need to exist; economies cannot thrive without healthy people going out and about. In our opinion, the same can be said for privacy. Now that governments are looking to technology to stop the spread of the virus, public health becomes erroneously contraposed to privacy. We believe that a well-designed health app does not need to threaten our privacy, nor indeed, the rule of  law and democracy. To date, personal data has been in the hands of the monopoly a few Big Tech firms, collected and used to predict consumer behaviour in order to increase their profits and that of advertisers. This health crisis creates enormous momentum for emerging technologies and their potential to be applied for the public cause. This is the moment to lay the foundation of well-designed technologies that serve the general public, while being grounded in privacy by design and ethical principles.

Source: Pixabay

Test and trace

In the fight against the corona virus, in order to protect both public health and the economy, governments, tech companies and scientists throughout Europe and the USA are now developing health apps to stop the spread of the virus, based on the principle of test and trace. Such apps, as currently in use in Asia, serve roughly two purposes: in some regions, such as Taiwan, apps are used to collect location data from cell phones to reinforce quarantine regulations; “geofences” track if people infected with the virus are staying within the designated areas, this being their homes. Another goal is ‘contact tracing’: apps that use GPS or Bluetooth data from mobile phones to keep track of all interactions or proximities people have with other people; in case of a positive test, people who have been in contact with an infected person receive a notification similar to: “Be Advised: you have lately been interacting with a COVID-19 infected person’’, with the request to go into self-isolation and seek a test (Sources: The Technology That Could Free America From Quarantine, The Atlantic and  Why Bluetooth apps are bad at discovering new cases of COVID-19, The Verge)

The current health tech applications in Asia demonstrate different models, ranging from voluntary compulsory and more intrusive, surveillance-based concepts. This Singapore model, called Trace Together relies on collectivism and voluntariness. In China, on the contrary, all mobile devices and access to the digital world are always tied to a person’s identity. Hence tracking citizens (train tickets, payments, etc.) is centralized and linked to someone’s identity, making it easier to trace and track all of their movements and behavior. Currently all citizens can download cellphone software (Alipay health code, a Wechat app or citizen’s app ) that relays their location to the authorities. At the entrance of any public building or area, you have to show your QR code; only those who have a ‘healthy’ green code are allowed to enter. (Source: The Technology That Could Free America From Quarantine (The Atlantic)

These examples of Asian practices give rise to much discussion about privacy in Western countries. Justifiable concerns about the centralization of such apps and improper use of the data by companies and governments for purposes other than combating the virus – are raised. And not without reason. Surveillance and misuse of these apps must be avoided at all times. We believe in the power of design, in the sense that a well-designed app simply does not have to threaten our privacy, nor the rule of law.


Privacy by design

In many of the projects carried out by UNSense, the same urgent issues are raised and tackled. We use technology in the built environment to improve livability in cities and the quality of the lives of the people who live in them, by adding a data layer to the physical urban design layer. We are convinced – as statistics show – that technology can be an effective tool to serve the public interest and to solve societal problems, such as limiting the spread of a virus and protecting public health, while safeguarding people’s privacy and civil rights.

For the 100 Homes Living Lab, we are in the development phase of a model for the equal exchange of data; a model that, on the one hand serves the public interest in terms of improving  livability for residents in urban districts. In the 100 Homes project we investigate and test how data harvested from residents can be used in the fields of energy consumption, food consumption and production, mobility and health to develop services that make the neighborhood healthier, more social, more affordable and more sustainable.



Our five design principles

Similarly, we designed solutions for the International zone in The Hague  which incorporates the World Forum, the Peace Palace and the International Criminal Court – whereby data technology is applied in compliance with the requirements of privacy legislation, to increase public security whilst avoiding the creation of a sense of surveillance. The same issue played a part in the collaborative design sprint we recently did with AMS Institute – in collaboration with representatives from the Municipality of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, TADA and researchers from TU Delft – concerning the topic of automated mobile data collection systems, such as scan cars: ‘How might we ensure that increasing data collection in cities does not lead to the creation of a surveillance state?’ and ‘How might we leverage the benefits of automated systems while retaining the human aspect of an analogue system?’ In answer to these questions, UNSense defined a gradient system of five design principles (Transparency, Legibility, Relatability, Contestability, Actionability) to create more humanized automated systems that interact with people to serve their (and societal) needs.

Returning to the subject of the health apps that are currently being developed in Europe and the US, the main argument from a UNSense perspective should be that the debate should not be about privacy but about democracy – as columnist Maxim Februari in Dutch newspaper NRC also argues. It is not a case of health vs privacy, economy or anything else. We believe in the power of design, in the sense that a well-designed app simply does not have to threaten our privacy, nor the rule of law. To us it is clear: good / benign technology can only emerge as the result of the cooperation of multiple stakeholders and experts.


Decentralised models

Current developments in Europe and the USA show that efforts are being made not to copy the Asian model one-to-one, but to tweak and adapt it according to the values attached to Western democracies and GDPR laws. With this goal in mind, the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) research group, consisting of 130 researchers from eight countries, is crafting a decentralised model that can support contact tracing efforts within countries and across borders. (Source: Techcrunch.com, ‘Eu-privacy-experts-push-a-decentralized-approach-to-covid-19-contacts’)

However, we must not be naive and must continue to closely follow  the decisions that are currently being taken. Now, governments (with the exception of GDPR affected countries) might be so hastily protecting health and the economy, that they are not aware that this could lay the foundations for a surveillance state. And once imposed through legislation without such considerations, it will be difficult to undo the potential damage. What happened after 9/11 with the Freedom Act in the USA teaches us that we need to implement proper mechanisms for democratic control over the system. New laws should be passed to determine when a state of emergency is over and to ensure that the tech is only used for very specific purposes.

Also, we should not underestimate the necessary commitment – alongside tech – of people in fighting the disease, experts warn. It may help to take a look at this open letter from a number of scientists / expert who argue, among other things, that we should be cautious not to put too much faith in technology alone, and that we really have to question and test whether this kind of app is really the most effective approach to fighting the pandemic. In addition, this should not solely be a project for IT engineers and epidemiologists, but also for other experts (e.g. from the social sciences) and stakeholders.


Use the Momentum

To tackle the spread of the virus without sacrificing our privacy, we need to understand that we have to take action collectively (solidarity). The current situation provides great momentum to change current business models that are based on data exchange. This is the first time in history that data can play a key role in solving significant societal problems on a global level, by shifting away from the dominant model that up until now has only served commercial ends. That creates enormous potential for, and responsibility from, all stakeholders in the game – governments, corporates, scientist and the general public –   to create systems that, by design, are safe and secure, when serving the public interest. We need to continue to design and build the right technology – not to track, impose and punish, but to inform, educate and empower the general public.


Further reading about the pro’s and cons of current and future health apps worldwide,

The Technology That Could Free America From Quarantine (The Atlantic)

Why Bluetooth apps are bad at discovering new cases of COVID-19 (The Verge)

Taiwan’s new ‘electronic fence’ for quarantines leads wave of virus monitoring (Reuters)

In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags (The New York Times)