Algorithmic systems in the coronavirus pandemic
Technologies such as contact-tracing apps and facial recognition software are raising hopes for improved containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, several algorithmic decision-making systems (ADM) have been rapidly implemented throughout Europe. In this special issue of the Automating Society Report, the Bertelsmann Stiftung and AlgorithmWatch provide an overview of European ADM systems designed to combat the pandemic as well as a classification of the various digital tools in use and the consequences they have for society.
By rapidly introducing algorithmic systems, many countries have hoped to prevent further lockdown measures through simple solutions. The new report, Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective, provides an overview of which technologies are being used – where and how. The report features the insights of scientists and journalists from 16 European countries regarding the application cases in each. Classifying the examples provided, the report compares various approaches pursued in Europe. It shows that among European countries – but particularly when comparing Europe to other parts of the world – there are considerable differences in how countries deal with the tensions involved with balancing the technologies’ potential for surveillance against protecting basic human rights.
Particularly in Asia and the Middle East, many countries are fully leveraging the potential for surveillance through technological applications. Here we see the widespread use of often mandatory apps designed to monitor those in quarantine as well as tracking wristbands and facial recognition technology in efforts to enforce restrictions. But we find invasive technological solutions and surveillance approaches in Europe as well: Poland has introduced an app that regularly requests the location data and photos of users as a means of ensuring compliance with quarantine measures. Downloading this app has been mandatory for all citizens since April. And Slovenia has adopted anti-corona legislation that gives the police force greater power to monitor the public through digital tools such as facial recognition.
At the same time, EU institutions and the WHO have called on states to ensure that the technologies in use do not violate human rights by issuing guidelines that include criteria such as voluntary participation, non-discrimination and compliance with data protection requirements. Many European countries have sought to integrate these criteria and thus rely on decentralized approaches (e.g., Estonia, Finland, Switzerland) and open-source technologies (e.g., Germany).
However, despite WHO warnings against a too-rapid rush to apply technological solutions, many of these technologies – such as contact-tracing apps – have been introduced in several countries before their benefits and their effectiveness in containing the pandemic have been determined. The report’s findings underscore the need to view technology as an important part of a larger effort to achieve a new normality, not as a silver bullet able to rapidly resolve all problems associated with the pandemic.
The publication is a special edition of the Automating Society Report 2020, which provides an overview of the applications, debates and regulatory decisions concerning European ADM systems in various areas. The report is scheduled to be published in October.