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City Examples of Digital Rights in Times of COVID-19

As cities around the world try to cope effectively with the COVID-19 crisis, we are witnessing a wide variety of digital technology responses. Mobile phones, social media, and artificial intelligence can play a substantial role in dealing with the COVID-19 spread. This includes the development of contact tracing apps and the use of big data to analyse people’s movements. For example, mobility data from Deutsche Telecom is being used to estimate the degree to which the German population is complying with requests to stay at home. In Singapore, the TraceTogether app uses bluetooth to enable the health ministry to identify people who have been in close contact with infected individuals.

Many of these kinds of solutions can be positive and help policy makers respond quickly and appropriately. They make it possible to monitor, anticipate  the spreading of the disease and support mitigation. While the use of these applications might be effective in the short term, there may be a fine line between hurried implementation of new technologies in times of crisis and negative long-term impact on digital rights. How to adequately balance values of privacy and autonomy with values of safety and security?

In this blog we will highlight the role that digital rights should play in COVID-19 responses with a special focus on pragmatic examples with a privacy-first and inclusive tech approach:

Social Innovation over Technological Innovation

Since the internet was created, the world has seen an increase in connection. Places and people that used to be half a world away were suddenly at the palm of your hand. Technology has brought us closer together, but in some ways this led to the environment that we are in now, where that very connection has forced us to disconnect instead and create distance once again. 

When the debate floor opens about the topic of COVID-19 people speak with their hearts as much as with their minds. However, this energy must be channeled the right way. To stay safe, to move past this, is to create an effective system by which local authorities can monitor health. The restrictions that all of us are bound by may be relaxed and the ability to safeguard one's health may be increased. In such dire situations, it’s easy to gloss over important ethical concerns relating to privacy under the guise of serving the public interest, but it’s important to not sacrifice our long term rights for a short term solution. 

Privacy is one of our human rights, inalienable and non-negotiable in a democracy, and any decisions we make now will resonate for far longer than the COVID-19 virus will. Though the situation we are in provides a unique context, laws aren’t as context specific as we would like in this situation. This presents us with the risk that we pass regulations now that later on may be used for purposes more nefarious than battling a global pandemic. It is therefore especially prudent to create an open space where the  debate about how to combine personal privacy and public health can exist. Combining differs from finding a balance as the common belief holds, given that these two concepts are not necessarily inversely related or exclusionary, but rather complement each other. With careful consideration, it is possible to improve on both of these concepts in tandem. 

To engage in meaningful discourse about the way we approach the issue at hand, it is first important to define more specifically what principles we must seek to uphold with regards to digital rights. For this, we formulated 10 principles we think are of utmost importance when employing Digital Technologies in the light of COVID19. 

Uphold fundamental rights while supporting local communities

The right to a private life must be upheld. This means that any use of personal health data, geo-location data or other personal forms of data must be limited, supervised and temporary. Under these conditions, the use of emergency measures can be created.

How do cities ensure a social and humane focus of technology-use in their communities? 

The question that remains is how can cities use technology as an enabler to face the current COVID-19 pandemic with citizens’ digital rights at the center of their design and application. In order to shed some light on this issue, we hereby present the following examples: 


Do you also have an example of COVID-19 responses and digital rights you would like to share with us?
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