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How urban myths become the deathblow of contact tracing technology [Guest-blog]

A solid technical foundation and a good legal framework will not be enough to convince a large part of the population to use a corona app. Wild stories about the app have been circulating for some time now. They are inspired by (bad) examples from other countries or - much more persistent - our own imagination. The government will soon start an information campaign to make clear why contact tracing is necessary. However, more will have to be done to iron out  the urban myths.

Did you also read the article in Vice that reveals how Facebook eavesdrops to conversations through the smartphone microphone? It soon turned out to be fake news: eavesdropping on such a large scale is technically not (yet?) possible, and in today's GDPR climate, even Facebook doesn't want to risk  such a scandal. Yet the myth remains alive, and even today the message is shared via - ironically enough - Facebook itself. It may be wrong, but at the same time Facebook is not transparent about why you do see what you see, and in the past it has repeatedly violated the trust of its users. Myths emerge to explain the incomprehensible, so Facebook owes the myth mainly to itself.

In the case of Facebook, these myths are still relatively innocent. It becomes problematic when it concerns the corona app. That app will most likely be introduced soon. Professor Bart Preneel, an expert in cryptology, recently explained convincingly in the VRT talk show De Afspraak (26/05/2020) that the app will meet the highest privacy standards. We ourselves as Kenniscentrum Data & Maatschappij were (and will remain) critical to the application, but it seems that the solution that is now being worked on meets our concerns to a large extent. Still, this alone will not be enough to create confidence in the technology, because the perception concerning the corona app is insufficiently positive. The government is currently  not communicating about the contact tracing app, but the media and citizens are. The longer the government waits with communication, the more difficult it becomes to steer the discussion.

The technical rollout is closely related to transparent communication. This is also apparent from the commotion surrounding the rollout of 5G technology in Flanders. Already nearly 38,000 Flemings signed a petition against 5G, and according to a report by the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, 18,000 Flemings are actively involved in this countermovement. Independent, international institutes such as the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) have worked for many years on a set of recommendations that guarantee the safety of 5G. Those recommendations do not suffice to neutralize the countermovement. There remains uncertainty about the effective risks of the technology and, at the same time, many citizens do not understand technology. There is no trust and transparency, resulting in a major countermovement. The 5G discussion could serve as a lesson for the implementation of the contact tracing app, and yet we risk making the same mistakes.

If we want the contact tracing app to make a substantial contribution to the fight against the epidemic, we need to gain more insight into (digital) technology. This is also a long-term task: it requires more investment in so-called 'data literacy', also among the broad population. But in the short term, transparency about the underlying technology in a clear communication campaign is of elementary importance. A critical attitude may and must remain possible. But that attitude must also be well-informed: the planned communication campaign must make it very clear how the technology works, how it will (and will not) be deployed, how it will disappear and what democratic guarantees will be given.

In order to counter the further proliferation of technological myths, trust is needed above all. Trust is best created by including citizens in the story. Respond to their motivation: perhaps the application should not advise a quarantine, but rather enable people to gain accelerated access to a corona test. Give citizens a say with a panel, do public consultations or involve them via a supervisory committee. Let citizens participate in the process, learn about the concerns and motivations, and adjust your policy accordingly. Participation is the key to making technology play a more important role in contact tracing in a successful way.

By Pieter Duysburgh, Rob Heyman, Rosamunde Van Brakel & Pieter Ballon
Knowledge Centre Data & Society

Image: (c) Robin Worrall, Unsplash

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