Authoritarian Tech

Coronavirus tests Germans’ devotion to privacy

New initiatives to limit the spread of Covid-19 have sparked a debate over how far the government can go to control the pandemic

Illustration by Sofiya Voznaya

Last week, a hand-written poster appeared on a fence in my Berlin neighborhood. It bore the slogan: “Fight digital totalitarianism” and appeared to be signed “The Analogs.”

Just days earlier, the German government had proposed mass data collection to trace the spread of the new coronavirus. The Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in the central German city of Halle advocated the voluntary collection of mobile phone data, in order to gain a better overview of the epidemic, even suggesting that data protection legislation be “reevaluated and, if necessary, adjusted in the short term.” Involuntary mass collection of location data has also been floated at the government level, before being withdrawn.

In an exceptionally privacy-conscious society such as Germany, these ideas have sparked a debate about how much state intrusion citizens are willing to accept, in order to bring an end to the national lockdown.

Compared to other European countries Germans “are much more sensitive towards privacy,” said Dr. Matthias C. Kettemann, of the Berlin-based Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. “This is really a German thing, the importance of data protection.”

As the newspaper Handelsblatt explains, “angst about potential surveillance is rooted in Germany’s past.” The combined legacy of the Nazi Gestapo and the East German Stasi are thought to be part of the reason Germany has been a pioneer in data protection — with legislation dating back to the 1970’s. This attitude to personal data has been tested, however, by recent discussions about the extent of measures that the government can take to control the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initial plans

In Asian countries like China and South Korea, data collection has been key to controlling the outbreak from the beginning, often to invasive ends, like South Korea publicizing infected patients’ travel histories. Initially, it seemed that Germany might follow a similar path. 

In mid-March, a proposed bill was leaked to the press, which would have given the government powers to “apply technical means to trace” people who had been in physical contact with infected individuals. A major political and civil-society backlash followed — the bill was interpreted as a mandate to seize individual users’ cell phone location data from telecom providers.

Two days later, on March 23, Health Minister Jens Spahn, seemingly chastened by the reaction, distanced himself from the plan. Still, he appeared to leave the door open for such policies in the future, if support for such measures grows “in the political and societal arena.” 

Though plans to track individuals were put aside, other forms of data collection have still taken place. On March 18 the German cell network giant Telekom announced it would voluntarily give anonymized location data to public health authorities. Another company, Telefonica, soon followed suit. The data was intended to measure whether the population as a whole was obeying social distancing regulations, not what any given person was up to. Even this softer form of surveillance caused some stark reactions.

“Here, in Germany! With your phone!” said one journalist at a Bavarian public broadcaster, in a YouTube video posted on March 21. “Welcome to the surveillance state.” 

The possibility of the state suddenly introducing invasive programs of public surveillance has shocked some commentators. “Why are we doing something that we’d previously thought was morally reprehensible — namely, introducing soft cyber-dictatorship measures?” asked Markus Gabriel, a well-known German philosopher public intellectual who teaches at the University of Bonn, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk, a major public broadcaster.

The App

The latest German initiative to limit the spread of Covid-19 is a yet-to-be-released cell phone tool that uses Bluetooth to gather data about who a user has been in physical proximity to. If the user is confirmed as having contracted the virus, individuals who have been in contact with them will get a notification. 

The technology is being developed by a large consortium of European organizations, including a leading German public health authority, called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Testing (PEPP-PT), which is working on a common technological framework for a virus tracking technology. The group is developing a combination of tools and standards that developers can use to build their own apps, all of which will be interoperable. In its literature, the consortium has assured the public that the data will be anonymized and not stored in central databases, instead offering a kind of grassroots, peer-to-peer surveillance. 

A number of academics have warned governments around the world not to commission coronavirus contact-tracing apps that collect and store personal data. Earlier this week, an open letter signed by professors from 26 countries urged governments to ensure the safeguarding of privacy. In the letter, the academics warned that the centralized approach could “catastrophically hamper trust in and acceptance of such an application by society at large.” 

It’s not entirely clear what form the technology will take in Germany. There has been talk of  integrating the common European framework within existing apps, like the government’s NINA emergency notification app. Users can then decide whether to turn on the tracking feature. The technology might ship as early as this week.

Some commentators have greeted this idea as a significant improvement on earlier, more invasive proposals.

“If the app adheres to these standards, it could be a reasonable and useful tool,” said Felix Maschewski, who lectures on the philosophy of technology at Free University of Berlin and co-authored “The Society of Wearables”.

But concerns remain, he said, as “to what extent it could really be effective.” 

Others had similar worries. “On closer inspection, this ‘hope’ for salvation…disappears,” reads an article published in the German publication Netzpolitik. The authors go on to cite the “unwieldy” performance of Bluetooth tech, as well as “doubts about the anonymity of data.” Similar criticisms have greeted a recent announcement that Apple and Google have teamed up to develop their own contact-tracing app.

Public attitudes

Polls show an uneven response to plans for the app among the German public. In response to a survey by an international team of academics, over 70 percent said they would be willing to install it. 

But another survey by the public-service broadcast group ARD has 47 percent of Germans saying they would download a contact tracker, while 45 percent said they would not. Almost half of the negative respondents cited privacy concerns. 

In spite of the widespread public outcry in March, concerns remain that data-collection initiatives might escalate beyond the voluntary. Earlier this month, Hansjörg Durz, a digital issues-focused legislator from the governing coalition, suggested that, if people refuse to volunteer sufficient data, “limiting the right to privacy shouldn’t be taboo.” 

Dr. Elke Steven, managing director of the Berlin-based digital rights organization Digitale Gesellschaft, is worried that people might progressively acquiesce to ever more stringent and problematic data-gathering initiatives as the crisis wears on.

“The longer this lasts, the more people will be prepared to agree to these surveillance measures, in order to maintain their other freedoms,” she said.

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Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard Saakashvili is a journalist based in Berlin.