Researchers critical of corona apps


Minister De Jonge announced during a press conference on 7 April that the government is considering using two apps to combat corona. In a letter to the cabinet, more than sixty scientists warn of the dangers of tracking, tracing and health apps in combating Covid-19. They urge the government to safeguard our fundamental rights in the design and implementation of so-called corona apps. From Utrecht University, Prof. José van Dijck, Prof. Pinar Yolum, Prof. Janneke Gerards, Prof. Albert Meijer, Prof. Anna Gerbrandy, Maranke Wieringa MA and Dr Mirko Tobias Schäfer signed the letter.

Dr. Mirko Schäfer
Dr. Mirko Schäfer

The scientists want a decision about the apps not only to be made by experts in the field of app development. Experts from other disciplines - such as technology, artificial intelligence, ethics, law, social sciences and behavioural sciences - should also be involved in this decision. Prof. José van Dijck: "When devising an exit strategy from the corona crisis, technical solutions must be able to rely on social insights, otherwise you won't get support for them.

Technology as a vehicle for political policy

"In view of the press conference, it was striking that technology is seen as a solution to social and political issues. This is a recurring phenomenon in the history of (media) technology," explains Dr Mirko Schäfer. "In the press conference, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Minister Hugo de Jong showed a textbook example of technocratic policy without any knowledge of technology. I don't claim that an app can't be useful to limit the spread of corona. But what I criticise - and what strikes me as a media scientist - is the use of technology as a vehicle for political policy. Politicians delegate their responsibilities to a kind of black box. They shouted 'app here' and 'app there', but what the app should actually do, how the app should be used and under what conditions was not clear at all".

It is especially in times of crisis that very careful social and legal considerations have to be made in order to determine whether such a highly invasive measure should be taken.

Usefulness, necessity en effectiveness

"The deployment of tracking and tracing apps and health apps is very intrusive. It is therefore important to take a critical look at the usefulness, necessity and effectiveness of such apps, as well as their impact on the broad social system, including our fundamental rights and freedoms". The scientists also state that the use of these apps should not be made compulsory.


More than a privacy issue

"The press conference did mention privacy as a hard requirement that the app should meet. But there are many more questions that are relevant," says Schäfer. The impact of the apps on our privacy goes far beyond our data and anonymity. "Even if the data is fully encrypted and deleted immediately after capture, the technology still invades our private lives and our psychological and moral integrity," the scientists state in their letter to the cabinet.

False safety

Effectiveness and reliability of the tracking app is incredibly important, because ineffectiveness and unreliability can lead to an increased risk of contamination and false safety.

Safe from corona

A second initiative is the manifesto published on 8 April in which experts in the fields of information technology, computer security, privacy and the protection of fundamental rights express concerns about the tracking app. This manifesto was co-signed by scientists from the Utrecht Data School. They want to prevent such an app from violating our human rights. The scientists indicate that they will oppose the implementation of the apps if these principles are not taken into account by the cabinet.