Europe wants to be a role model for technological responses to COVID-19. But it’s complicated.

Launch of our new report on 'Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic'

The ongoing pandemic has spurred the deployment of a plethora of automated decision-making (ADM) systems all over Europe. In a special issue of their Automating Society Report 2020, AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung provide an initial mapping and exploration of ADM systems implemented throughout Europe as a consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Berlin, 1st September 2020. Contact tracing apps for smartphones, thermal scanners, face recognition technology: high hopes have been placed by both local administrations and national governments in applications and devices like these, aimed at containing the outbreak of the virus. The new publication Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective gathers detailed examples of ADM systems in use, compiled by a network of researchers covering 16 countries. The report is published as part of AlgorithmWatch‘s and Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Automating Society project and as a “preview” of its upcoming 2020 edition, due out in October.

“There is a common thread running through many of the examples examined in the report: the flawed ideology of ‘technological solutionism’ that conceives every social problem as a 'bug’ in need of a 'fix’ through technology— even in the face of scant evidence in favour of the effectiveness of existing anti-COVID ADM systems,” says Fabio Chiusi, project manager and co-editor of the report. “This may be used to justify the uncritical adoption of tools and policies that risk undermining human rights. But securing public health can and must be compatible with democratic checks and balances.”

This has also been pointed out clearly by both the World Health Organisation and EU institutions, through documents and principles that many member states actively tried to implement, as most apparent in the conception and development of their “exposure notification” apps . It is particularly positive that some of the countries are using decentralized approaches and also open source technology.

The country-by-country analyses are contextualized by comparing the main features of ADM-based responses within the EU and outside of it, highlighting some significant differences in how the interplay of technology and human rights is conceived in different parts of the world. And even though radical and ultimately repressive models of ADM systems mainly concern Asia and the Middle East, similarities can be found in some European countries as well.

Poland’s “Kwarantanna domowa” app uses geolocation and face recognition technology to ensure that relevant people are quarantined; download of the app is mandatory. Face recognition technology has also been deployed to enforce social distancing in Italy, in the municipality of Como, earning the city the label of “Big Brother Como”. In Slovenia the government managed to pass an anti-coronavirus legislative package that not only gives it legal grounds to mandate adoption of its contact tracing app in the future, but also greatly expands police powers, even putting future anti-government protests in danger. Countries such as Estonia and the UK are experimenting with “immunity passports” as digital “credentials” to prove an individual’s health status, even though there is no evidence as to their scientific weight.

While marketed as necessary tools in “going back to normal”, these ADM systems, if badly conceived and opaquely deployed, risk imposing a new normal based on pervasive and health-based surveillance. According to the report, these socio-technical systems may be born out of a public health emergency, but could definitely be here to stay, as already shown in authoritarian environments, adding to the already concerning arsenal of surveillance devices deployed before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“As this report demonstrates in the context of a public health emergency, technologies are no panacea in themselves, but need to be integrated into broader sociotechnical solutions and implemented responsibly with regard to existing frameworks of human rights and data protection”, says Sarah Fischer, project manager at Bertelsmann Stiftung and co-editor of the report. That this is true also for the use of ADM systems in many areas of life, we will show in the second edition of the Automating Society report.

Read the report online or donwload the PDF (1 MB).

For questions and interview requests concerning the report, please get in touch with Fabio Chiusi at (English & Italian).

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