ADM Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Belgium

New report: 'Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective' by AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung – a special issue of the upcoming Automating Society Report 2020, to be published in October.

Country analysis: Belgium

By Rosamunde van Brakel

Belgium was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a high number of deaths. The virus was confirmed to have spread to Belgium on 4 February 2020. It became significantly worse after people returned from spring holiday at the beginning of March. The National Security Council ordered a ‘lockdown light’ from Friday 13 March midnight onwards, which included the closure of schools, discos, cafes and restaurants, non-essential shops and companies, the cancellation of all public gatherings and the message that people need to work from home and leave the house as little as possible. Starting early May, the lockdown measures were removed in different phases.

Road to a contact tracing app

At the end of March, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Digital Agenda and Privacy launched a taskforce ‘Data & Technology against Corona’. Members of the taskforce included representatives of the Ministry of Health, Sciensano, the e-health platform and the Belgian Data Protection Authority. The goal of the taskforce was to oversee and coordinate all health initiatives.

The possibility of developing a contact tracing app was explored but at the end it was concluded that this was not a decision for the Federal government to make but should be taken by the regional Flemish, Walloon and Brussels governments.

In June 2020, an inter-federal interdisciplinary working group was set up by Professor Bart Preneel from the University of Leuven who is one of the leading partners in the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) app initiative. It is considered the most privacy-friendly app solution as no data is stored centrally by the government and, no use is made of automated decision-making[16].  The goal of the working group is to develop  policy measures for the Belgian version of the app.

A cooperation agreement between the regional governments was finalized in a couple of weeks, which usually would take two years . The Belgian app will be based on the German app and will be built by Belgian company Devside. It is expected that the app will be operational by the end of September 2020.

ADM to enforce lockdown rules

Automated decision-making systems have been used by the government to enforce lockdown rules. For instance, mobile phone signals are used to track movements of people and indicate in real-time how busy certain areas get. With two to three minutes delay, the algorithms give a warning when the maximum number of people has been reached.

The algorithms can also distinguish between residents and passers-by, and was already tested when the Tour de France passed through Brussels.

Another example is the deployment of smart video surveillance cameras to monitor how crowded the shopping streets become. For instance, in Roeselare, telecom operator Citymesh installed smart cameras in one of the shopping streets. "The camera counts in real time how many people walk on the image in or out of the street," said Citymesh CEO Mitch De Geest. “These counts give the police, taking into account the available surface area and the diameter of one and a half meters, an insight into the occupation rate of the street. So that they can close it if necessary".

Download the full report as PDF (1 MB).

[16] Cfr. Footnote n. 2, Introduction

Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective is a special issue of the report Automating Society 2020 by AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung, to be published in October. Subscribe to the our newsletter to be alerted when the report is out.