The technology imperative is the norm that because technology exists, you need it. In the response to the Corona pandemic, we are seeing a lot of technology thrown at the problem, with the unquestioned assumption that we need it to fight the pandemic. It will be useful. Today, this is a dangerous imperative that can threaten democratic values.

Let me explain what I mean by this, what we should do instead, and what you can do. First, let’s look at some of the technology that has been used energetically by governments to fight the pandemic.

Using technology to fight the Corona pandemic

Drones have been very popular in the fight against the Corona pandemic. They have been used to  deliver medical supplies, to disinfect public spaces,  to warn people to keep their distance, to tell them to go home, to detect people with fever and to detect people not wearing masks. Surveillance cameras are used to track where people diagnosed with Covid-19 have been. Robots are used in hospitals to minimize person-to-person contact. There are proposals to use AI to detect Covid-19 in CT scans and to estimate the structure of SARS-CoV-2-related proteins.

Ten countries are using mobile phones to fight the pandemic. South Korea, Iran, Israel and Singapore use mobile apps for tracing with whom patients have been in contact. The UK and the Netherlands are considering a similar application, probably based on Bluetooth. Taiwan is using an app to monitor home confinement. Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Italy use people’s mobile phones for mapping crowd movement.  China is using an app developed by Alibaba with which people can diagnose themselves and get a color code to indicate their health status, which may then be used to check if you may enter an area or a building. Singapore is using mobile phones not only to track people but also to measure temperature and provide information about the pandemic.

Does it work?

The first step in fighting the unquestioned imperative to use high tech to solve a problem is to ask the question whether it will work. The answer is that we don’t know.

A technological solution idea always starts context-free. Maybe this tool will produce that effect. During development, we scale up (does it work when a million people use it?) and we add context-sensitivity (what about walls, reflections, failing batteries, imprecise sensors, differences in hardware, operating systems?). Next, we test it in the field, with its thousands of uncontrollable conditions. And after release in the real world, unexpected new applications of the technology come up.

Due to lack of time, decision-makers compress development in the shortest possible time, skip the stage of field experiments and jump to real-world use immediately.  This is action research conducted globally, one per country, that no researcher could have proposed or conducted.

Now, surely all these technologies will have effects, some intended, some unintended, and some unexpected. For example, in South Korea, people are more afraid of blaming and shaming on social networks they may suffer from being infected, than they are afraid of the virus itself. And the intended effect may not materialize for the people most at risk. According to Jeni Tennison of the Open Data Institute, over half of the people over 75 don’t use internet, and nearly half of those over 55 don’t have a smartphone.

The effect of the measures that different countries take can only be investigated in a few years from now. It will take years to do this research and disentangle the contribution of all variables. Different countries use various combinations of social distancing, quarantine and lockdown, supported by a mix of technologies, in contexts of different population density, demographic structure, transport infrastructure, travel patterns, education systems, political systems, and culture. It is way too early now to answer the question whether and how these technologies work in different parts of the real world. We don’t know.

Multistakeholder cost/benefit assessment under uncertainty

Decision-makers cannot wait for scientific evaluation. But because they cannot just invoke the technology imperative to support their decisions, they perform a multi-stakeholder cost/benefit analysis under uncertainty — and under high time-pressure in this case. Let’s do a quick analysis of the use of mobile apps to track and trace people in the fight against Corona.

Stakeholders include citizens, companies, and governments. There are many more stakeholders such as health care institutions, the police (to enforce measures), the army (who can help health care institutions as well as the police) and others.  But let’s keep it simple.

What are the costs, benefits and risks of using a mobile tracing app for citizens?

  • The benefit of using mobile apps that citizens may hope for is that they make it safer for them to move around.
  • The cost of using them is, depending on the kind of technology used, some loss of privacy.
  • There at many  risks for citizens: The app may not be downloaded at the scale needed to be effective (as appears to be the case in Singapore); if it uses Bluetooth, it may not be accurate enough, giving a false sense of safety; false positives cause individuals to self-quarantine with no positive and substantial negative effect; it may lead to social harassment if data gets public, as happened in South Korea; government may not withdraw the technology, and its accompanying legislation, after the epidemic is over; companies may find it irresistible, essential even, to use tracing data stored in the cloud for their own purposes; malicious agents may hack cloud storage to get access to the data.

Tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are benefiting because they get sorely needed good PR by developing an infrastructure that makes it easy to run a tracing app. In the long run, they will gain even more power because the infrastructures they provide will be even more pervasive and critical for many countries. All of this at no significant cost and little risk of achieving something else than they aimed for.

Non-tech companies may benefit in the future by using mobile tracing technology for delivering new services. Combining data from the app with data from your address book, credit card data and GPS data of your car creates a host of new possibilities.

The benefit that governments hope for is better control of the epidemic. And if the technology remains in use, even if the government now promises to take it out of use after the epidemic, the technology may come in handy for future governments in situations where they need control. The major risk for the current government may be that introducing this infrastructure costs time and money that may have been spent in a better way, only to learn later that it has made no difference to the outcome.

What can we do?

Let’s get back to the technology imperative. Is it smart to track and trace people using a mobile app to combat the Corona epidemic? Is it imperative that we use it? One pessimistic prediction is that the only thing that will stop the technology imperative is lack of money. Since many countries have enough money to fight the epidemic, we can predict that the governments of those countries will use some kind of mobile tracing app. Somewhat cynical we may respond that this will create a lot of tech employment.

But my conclusion from the cost/benefit analysis for citizens is that we should resist mobile tracing. There are too many risks for the stakeholders least able to manage them: citizens. And there is a simple way we can do this: don’t use this app. Don’t install it. Switch off your GPS and Bluetooth. Better still, don’t use a smartphone. Believe me, life with a dumb phone is not only possible but agreeable.

Smartphones are not part of our public infrastructure. If your government obliges you to have one and forces you to install a tracing app, join a political party, or start a new one, to fight it.