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Distrustful of the Coronalert tracking app? Responding to five major concerns

A text by Louka Lacroix, director of Advocacy Program and speaking on behalf of theEuropean association of law students in Belgium (ELSA Belgium).

At a time when the Belgian population seems increasingly weary in the absence of clear perspectives as to the outcome of the health crisis, a tool such as the “Coronalert” application deserves attention, today more than ever. Indeed, the extension of confinement, the announcement of a more contagious English mutation and the delays in vaccine delivery make it all the more essential. Indeed, the purpose of this application is to reduce the number of contaminations, but – like Uber or Tinder – it can only reach its full potential if the number of users is high enough. Experts estimate that ideally 60% of the Belgian population should use it, but to date, the number of downloads is barely above 15%. This rate is sufficient for the application to be effective, but well below the ideal adhesion rate. The European Association of Law Students in Belgium (ELSA Belgium), author of this text, is convinced that it is possible, and even desirable, to make better use of this application. In order to promote its use, the association has identified and analyzed five potential reservations with regard to this application, in order to provide relevant answers and allay any unfounded fears.

1. Confidentiality and operation of the application

The first concern concerns respect for private life. A tracking application can engender fear of being spied on by the government. A short answer to that: Coronalert is designed so that this is not possible. The application works as follows. First of all, you need to turn on Bluetooth. The application will then start broadcasting encrypted and anonymous codes, as well as receiving these codes generated by other devices. The closer you get to another device, the more codes your own device will receive. Ditto for the time you spend with another device. When another user tests positive, they have the option of indicating it on the app and the device will try to notify people who have been close to that person for more than 15 minutes in the past two weeks. This then counts as contact with an infected person. If you subsequently collect 10 or more such contacts within two weeks, you will be considered “at risk”. This means that your chances of contracting and spreading the virus are higher than average. This means that the device does not know where you are or how many people are around. It only measures the distance between your device and someone else’s. The government cannot therefore technically monitor you or verify that you are complying with the measures put in place by it. All collected data is also automatically deleted after two weeks. Thus, the app integrates seamlessly with both national privacy regulations and EU GDPR. You can find a more detailed explanation by clicking on this link.

2. Bluetooth waves

Some people also seem to be concerned about the harmful effects that streaming bluetooth waves could have on their health. On this subject, we allow ourselves to reassure these concerned people. The waves emitted by Bluetooth are in fact no more harmful than those we encounter day to day (wifi, 4G, cellular network …). Bluetooth radiation, like radio or television radiation, corresponds to what is called “non-ionizing radiation”, that is to say, it carries too little energy than for damage DNA. According to the WHO while it is clear that ionizing radiation such as UV is found to be harmful, the evidence for the harmfulness of non-ionizing radiation (such as Bluetooth waves) is far from sufficient and is considered safe for now. However, if you are committed to the precautionary principle, you can choose to activate your Bluetooth only when you go out and come into contact with other people.

3. The (not very) practical aspect of quarantine

One more practical aspect that seems to keep many people from taking the download step is app-related quarantine. After all, the application indeed advises self-isolation of at least 7 days for people “at risk”. However, as we have already explained, to arrive at an increased risk, it is necessary to have already accumulated more than ten positive contacts in 2 weeks. To get there, you already have to go out or see people quite regularly … Even people who often travel by public transport or who frequently come into contact with other people during their work have no reason to stay. ‘worry about it. If one sticks to the prescribed rules of social distancing, it will be difficult to reach ten contacts. In addition, your device cannot technically or legally force you to quarantine yourself. Only you will know that you are at risk (even if you share information on the application, since you remain anonymous to others) and can decide to isolate yourself. This warning therefore only appeals to your sense of responsibility and to your practical sense. In this sense, what you choose to do after receiving a notification should not be seen in a binary way: quarantine or no quarantine. Many intermediate options are possible. For example, you can opt out completely for the first 3-4 days and then not go out unless it is strictly necessary. You can also pay extra attention to social distancing and postpone dates with friends or family – especially if there is someone at risk among them. The preferred option is strict quarantine, but there are people who can’t – or don’t think they can – join for practical reasons, like work. So we believe that it is always better for these people to use the app with slightly less effective measures, than not to use it at all. Remember: one savvy person is worth two. Do not endanger your health and the health of others through reckless behavior, the potential consequences of which are more than foreseeable.

4. The stress of notification

Receiving a notification labeling you as “at risk” can be stressful. However, remember that being notified does not mean that you are infected. It just means that you are at a higher than normal risk of getting infected. It is therefore recommended, but not always necessary, to get tested. Just as you would take a child’s hand when crossing the road, it is best to avoid seeing your grandmother when you are at risk. These different concepts of risk are not fundamentally different except that the car, we see it arriving … Hence the usefulness of an application that assesses the risk invisible to us! So let’s not let this anxiety prevent us from downloading and using the app. The danger does not magically disappear when we close our eyes, on the contrary, it is more likely to sneak under our noses.

5. Laziness?

We all have a lazy side that we are a little ashamed of, but think about the impact this app could have. We as humans often tend to think of increases in a linear fashion. However, the increases in infections are often exponential, which means concretely that they are increasing much faster than we think. Imagine a concrete example of a case where Covid-19 has a base reproduction rate of 4 (the average number of people infected per contagious individual), which was pretty much the case without containment. If we can prevent even one person from being contaminated by another, this one will not infect 4 people around them, and these 4 people will not each infect 4 people around them. ‘them, and so on … If we repeat this operation 10 times, we arrive at a little over 1 million people saved from an infection, just because the contagious person would have been warned by the application that she was at risk! Therefore, actions that may seem negligible on our scale can in fact have phenomenal consequences at the societal level, and therefore have a major impact on the life of each of the individuals who make it up. If we all get down to it, we have the very real possibility of reversing this snowball effect of the infections that have been plaguing us for months and using it to our advantage. Thanks to the power of this app to prevent systemic infections, we could achieve less stringent containments as well as avoid potential re-containments.

Conclusion: an application with many advantages and few disadvantages

We summarize. An application that: warns you when you are at risk; respects your privacy impeccably; cannot harm your health; advises you on what to do when you are at risk, without forcing you to do anything; only takes 2 minutes to install and use; would allow all of us, if enough of us decide to use it, to suffer less restrictions on our cherished freedoms and thus to enjoy life better. In addition, the rare drawbacks of it are minimal and can be easily avoided as we have pointed out above. For example, if Bluetooth waves are a real problem for you, you can activate the app only when you step outside, the same way you tie your shoelaces before going outside. So let’s not lose the potential of this app for unfounded reasons. Let us show our solidarity with our courageous caregivers by using the application to lighten their burden. These two short minutes of installation can make all the difference. When everyone is sweeping their sidewalk, the whole street is clean. So start with your sidewalk. The street will follow.

>>> The chapô is from the editorial staff.

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