UC scientist assesses the pros and cons of using mobile applications to combat the pandemic

With the possibility of using mobile applications (apps) to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, is it possible to reconcile the advantages of these digital tools in a situation of epidemiological surveillance with the risks to the security and privacy of users?

Scientist Alexandra Aragão, from the Legal Institute of the Faculty of Law of the University of Coimbra (FDUC), understands that it is. Despite the risks inherent to the use of these technologies, if the ethical rules already developed and recommended by the European Union are duly observed, in the end, he believes, the whole society gains from interrupting the transmission chains and limiting the spread of the virus.

In the study entitled “Ethical-legal issues related to the use of apps that generate mobility data for Covid-19 epidemiological surveillance. A European perspective ”, Alexandra Aragão contextualizes the European Commission’s Recommendation (EU) 2020/518 on the use of technologies and data to combat COVID-19 through mobile applications and the use of anonymized mobility data, of 8 April 2020, and presents the desirable requirements of these apps in the European Union.

In the face of the pandemic crisis, the DDF expert believes that mobile applications that produce anonymized and aggregated mobility data to assist competent public authorities in their efforts to contain the spread of the virus «are very advantageous, helping to understand how the virus it will spread, assess the effectiveness of the social distance measures, model the spatial dynamics of the epidemics (movement limitations, closures of non-essential activities, total confinement, etc.) and also model the economic effects of the crisis ».

For citizens, he stresses, the advantages of using multifunctional apps «are also significant. For example, the self-diagnosis and symptom control functions can be especially important for the emotional stabilization of users who are infected or afraid of being infected. The alert and tracking functions through proximity data (bluetooth) can play a fundamental role in the identification of social contacts ».

Therefore, he adds, «the” if “of the acceptance of new technologies of
communication to achieve the most important social purposes, such as health protection, does not seem to be under discussion. What is at stake are the security conditions in the production, access and use of information produced, processed, stored and transmitted ».

Therefore, with regard to the risks resulting from the production of personal and location data by mobile applications linked to epidemiological surveillance networks, the DDF professor also underlines that «the most serious risk is the cybercrime understood in a broad sense ».

However, the risks arising from the use of mobile applications linked to epidemiological surveillance networks «are a reality common to other applications, platforms or digital services that contain or can access personal information, such as Tinder, Find my friends or Snapchat, all of which already exist, installed on the market and with millions of users ».

The researcher notes that several fundamental rights are at stake, such as freedom of assembly (if the app is used to detect groups of people in advance); freedom of movement (to signal routes or destinations not recommended); intimacy of private life (if the app is used to identify undesirable behaviors, namely social proximity); human dignity (if confinement jeopardizes access to food or other fundamental rights).

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