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Technologies to fight coronavirus: back to the drawing board

Without a doubt, you've noted the appathon organized by the Dutch Ministry of Health (VWS) (Appathon coronavirusapp day 1 and Appathon coronavirusapp day 2). It is fair to say that the enthusiasm of the organizers and the scale of participation were second to none. However, the feeling of excitement was tempered quickly after critique from the state attorney, the Dutch data protection authority, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, privacy experts, security experts, and civil society (See link). The message was clear: go back to the drawing board and restart thinking about how to use technology wisely to help us curb the spread of the coronavirus.

In doing so, we should not limit ourselves to apps. To broaden the range of options, I recommend reading the report published by the European Parliamentary Research Service. The report contains an analysis of ten technologies to fight coronavirus. They are artificial intelligence, blockchain, open-source technologies, telehealth technologies, three-dimensional printing, gene-editing technologies, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, drones, and robots. 

Privacy Concepts

Three privacy concepts stand out when we make decisions about the design and combination of technologies in the context of coronavirus. First, a human rights impact assessment, aimed at identifying privacy risks - and, perhaps more importantly - to identify societal risks, such as group bias, discrimination, or unintended effects. Second, the legality of data processing with independent supervision by the privacy regulator. Third, the application of privacy by design to mitigate the identified risks.
We cannot exclude privacy by design in advance. Equally important is the fact that the spread is a global phenomenon. This means that it is wise to include the standardization of data formats and the cross-border nature of data flows as design criteria.


We must recognize that every technology, once adopted, will exist for a more extended time. It is not inconceivable that some of the technologies will be embedded in our society permanently. If the risks change, then the assessment of the measures to control them in terms of necessity or proportionality will also change. If we want to prepare for the time after this crisis, now is the time to do so.

Bijschrift foto: Screenshot NOS Achtuurjournaal 18 April 2020, covering the appathon organized by the Dutch Ministry of Health.

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