Algorithmic systems in the coronavirus pandemic – The European approach between surveillance and the protection of basic rights

Can technologies such as contact-tracing apps and facial recognition software serve as silver-bullet solutions to the coronavirus pandemic? Hoping this to be the case, a number of countries are rushing to implement algorithmic decision-making systems (ADM). Balancing the technology’s potential in crisis management with a respect for basic rights, Europe aims to serve as an example by linking human rights and data protection requirements with effective technologies. The difficulties associated with this task are highlighted in our special issue of the Automating Society Report. Together with AlgorithmWatch, we offer in this issue an overview of European ADM systems designed to combat the pandemic as well as a classification of the various digital tools in use and the consequences they have for society.

Several countries around the globe have rapidly implemented ADM systems such as contact-tracing or corona-warning apps and facial recognition software since the outbreak of the virus. The goal with these technologies has been to prevent further lockdowns and resolve in a simple manner the complex problems associated with the pandemic. In the report Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective, we provide an overview of the use of algorithmic systems in 16 European countries. Scientists and journalists from the countries featured have provided insight into the numerous application cases in each country. By comparing not only European countries against each other but Europe as a whole with non-European regions, the report points to a broad range of approaches in applying the available technological solutions.

Countries in Asia and the Middle East are taking full advantage of the technologies’ surveillance potential – using mandatory quarantine apps, tracking wristbands, as well as facial recognition technologies to enforce mask compliance. However, similarly invasive surveillance solutions can also be found to some extent in Europe: In Poland, where everyone is required to download a quarantine app, users must send – via the app and on a regular basis – their location data and photos of themselves to prove that they are in compliance with the state-mandated measures. In Slovenia, legislation introduced to combat the pandemic grants the police greater power to monitor citizens through digital instruments such as facial recognition technology.

However, EU institutions as well as the WHO have called on states to ensure that the use of these technologies not infringe on basic human rights. With this in mind, they have identified criteria such as voluntary participation, transparency and explainability, as well as compliance with data protection requirements. At the same time, they warn against rushed efforts to implement technological solutions – even in times of crisis. Many European countries have sought to follow these recommendations with, for example, open source solutions and decentralized approaches. Nevertheless, as the report shows, the fundamental benefits of rapidly implemented solutions remains unclear. The effectiveness of contact-tracing apps, for example, has yet to be proven, and we do not have the methods to measure their impact. The report concludes that technological solutions can be an important part of a functioning healthcare system, but are no panacea.

The publication is a special edition of the Automating Society Report 2020, which provides an overview of the applications, debates and regulatory decisions concerning European ADM systems in various areas. The report is scheduled to be published in October.