30. březen 2020 / Jan Klesla

Price for health

Comment of Director of Institute for Digital Economy Jan Klesla for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny.

The world's richest man, Bill Gates, became famous in the 1990s for the fact that in his mansion people were divided by the color of the entrance cards that allowed them to enter different zones of the house. In the antechamber and kitchen everyone, in the living room only trustworthy guests, in the bedroom only the closest family and in the study of the owner himself. It sounds like some kind of jungle eccentricity, but what if something like this were introduced today? What if, for example, no one who met a positive tested person for Covid-19 for the past 14 days were allowed to visit the retirement home? What if the same applied for hospital visits and fathers at birth? And what if all of this was provided by an automatic IT system based on the evaluation of our movement data from mobile phones and payments from merchants or even from street cameras?


Could something like this save human lives, especially the most vulnerable ones? Absolutely no doubt. Would life significantly improve the lives of the elderly, the sick and the mothers? Definitely yes. Is it technically feasible? Seamlessly. But are we willing to be so watched and give up not only our privacy but as well a great deal of freedom? Let our life be managed by an intelligent system that assesses our potential risk to others?


To be absolutely clear, none of the above is a system of so-called smart quarantine, which is to be deployed in the Czech Republic for Easter. It is based on streamlining the routine work of hygienists today and uses data from operators and banks only with the explicit consent of the infected, and he must voluntarily state who he met. And especially after six hours everything is deleted. This is not an areal surveillance that many are afraid of. Yet. Unfortunately, such ideas are beginning to appear dangerously often in our country.


An honest digital drape


There are voices that the smart quarantine to free us from house arrest is not smart enough. We should be more and more closely watched, so that we can go cheerful and drink again and stop choking our economy. In Slovakia, they are already preparing a "smarter" system, which is based on operators' data to evaluate compliance with quarantine and send SMS to those who could meet the infected. 
One young Czech billionaire even calls on the social networks to introduce "an honest quarantine for suspects (ideally with tracking bracelets)". In fact, with a prison surveillance device for everyone, as in some dystopian science fiction of the 1980s.


South Korea, which has built a very similar system to respected Czech companies in the case of clever quarantine, is often used as a model. Just turned out to be too slow, cumbersome, and requires too many people to operate. So much more automated, including the use of motion data. Already on March 16, according to The Economist, local media reported that it was possible to reduce the time of identification of all contacts infected from 24 hours to 10 minutes thanks to automatic detection of people.

The fact that this is no science fiction is also shown by the experience in Hong Kong, where border guards forced everyone to make their location on the mobile phone available to the authorities to monitor compliance with the mandated quarantine. Needless to say, the Autonomous Region is under the administration of Communist China, which, besides the current geopolitical sale of masks, likes to build high-tech concentration camps for uncomfortable minorities.
 The new possibilities will surely please comrades, especially when the local companies have already developed an algorithm for face recognition and watching people in robes.


Be like Fremen


The big guarantee of our privacy today is the involvement of the Czech community of IT entrepreneurs, who work in great enthusiasm day and night with the best intention. On the other hand, there are also mobile operators on board, who have long known what wealth they have to follow us at every step. And even though they are helping today, they will be incredibly tempted to leave the door for the lucrative commercial uses they have been trying for years after the crisis.

The actual legal framework given here mainly by GDPR is quite strict and even counts on epidemic cases. However, no one today knows how long it will take and how laws can change. In Britain, the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act gives the opportunity to request any data from private companies. In Israel, the Shin Bet secret service was then given powers to monitor the infected, and the constitutional court withdrew after the establishment of a parliamentary supervisory committee.

The greatest guarantee is thus the development of technologies that already respect fundamental rights in the design even in difficult and difficult times. This is also proclaimed by the European Commission and a great example is the application Fremen, which is being developed by scientists at the FEE CTU in Prague. Based on anonymous data, it predicts the density of people in the location and avoids crowds. Something that many of us might do well beyond a pandemic. And we don't have to be Bill Gates.

Digitální ekonomika