Politics of North-South contact-tracing app hides real problem
The issue of the normalisation of invasive surveillance is being lost in the argument
Different contact-tracing apps are under development in the Republic and Northern Ireland
‘Test, track and trace” has become the mantra in the fight against Covid-19. Digital contact tracing apps are presented as a key weapon in this battle. But their use poses significant technical and political challenges. They promise to deliver a quick technological fix, yet they bypass the complex political and social dimensions of this public health emergency. Should we really put our trust into a digital tool with unproven technological efficacy, and with worrying consequences for our civil liberties and human rights, such as our privacy?
In Ireland, these complexities are heightened by the existence of two jurisdictions, a porous border with closely integrated communities, divided constitutional allegiances in the North, and the prospect of two different and incompatible digital tracking systems. CovidTracker Ireland, which is developed by the Health Service Executive (HSE), will operate through a voluntary and decentralised tracking system. Most data collected by this app will be stored on an individual’s smartphone. The British government’s NHS Covid-19 app is on trial in the Isle of Wight, and it could be introduced in Northern Ireland. This app uses a centralised model, where data will be stored and analysed on a central server.
Both apps have technical limitations. According to the British-based Ada Lovelace Institute, digital contact tracing is a poor substitute for manual contact tracing. It is imprecise in detecting contact and distance, and it is vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Also, in order to work effectively, digital contact tracing apps require accurate infection reporting and a significant smartphone penetration. According to most estimates, at least 60 per cent of the population must download the app if it is to work properly. But a persistent digital divide could exclude the very populations most at risk from coronavirus, such as the elderly, and economically disadvantaged communities.
The Northern Ireland Executive is currently reintroducing contact tracing. But any plans to introduce digital contact tracing into Northern Ireland must address the technical and political challenges of cross-Border movements, and the close social, economic and political connection of Border communities. As we move between Muff and Derry, between Ballybofey and Strabane, or between Dundalk and Newry, the use of two different and incompatible apps on this island will undermine digital tracking efforts.
To overcome the hurdle of cross-Border interoperability, Minister for Health Simon Harris has expressed his preference for an all-Ireland approach, while his Northern Irish counterpart, Robin Swann, favours the development of an Northern Irish version of the UK app that can “interact with the Republic of Ireland app”.
According to a recent report, people who live in Northern Ireland could have to download both apps, a politically clumsy and technically inadequate solution.
The coronavirus pandemic has illustrated starkly that appeals to science- and technology-based public health initiatives are infused with political allegiances and loyalties. This was demonstrated recently, when unionist and nationalist politicians quarrelled over the timing of the introduction of lockdown measures. As unionists took their lead from London, Northern nationalists argued for alignment with Dublin. Will the decision over the choice of contact tracing app replicate this quarrel?
But framing the question in these terms offers the wrong kind of choice. What we really need to address is the normalisation of invasive surveillance through the use of digital contact tracing, with limited impact on fighting the pandemic, but with long-term damage to our human rights and civil liberties.
These concerns have been raised on both sides of the Border and of the Irish Sea. Amnesty International recently wrote to the Northern Ireland Executive to express their concerns for data privacy and human rights protection. In their letter, Amnesty International called for an all-Ireland, decentralised app, a view echoed by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.
The risk of a re-anonymisation of our data, and the disclosure of personal, and thus sensitive, information could lead to the stigmatisation and discrimination of Covid-infected people. There are also concerns over the security of sensitive health data, and the vulnerability of contact tracing apps to security breaches. Fears over the repurposing of our health data and its use by security forces or immigration agencies will deter people from signing up to digital contact tracing schemes. And there are suspicions that digital contact tracing apps could result in the commercialisation of health data and accelerate big tech companies’ access to public health services.
People’s legitimate fears over the Covid-19 pandemic, and their worries for the health, wellbeing and lives of their loved ones, should not be used to introduce an unproven technology with significant and potentially long-lasting implications for our human rights and civil liberties. Before we rush into a Faustian pact with digital surveillance, we need to ensure that digital contact tracing will comply with human rights and data protection standards.
Dr Birgit Schippers is senior lecturer in politics at St Mary’s University College Belfast