"The response to COVID-19 has led to measures that restrict the freedom and, sometimes, the privacy of citizens"

31 Mar 2020

Philosopher of technology Mark Coeckelbergh talked to STI about a letter he signed to the Spanish government supporting the appropriate use of expanded access to personal data during the country’s official state of alarm.

STI Experts

The letter (the entire text and list of signatories can be read here in the El Pais newspaper), begins with a statement of approval of the Spanish government’s efforts to use technological means to save lives by optimizing the healthcare system and ultimately eradicating the COVID-19 virus.  (The country had recently begun using mobile apps and experimenting with mobile telephone data to manage the health crisis). It goes on to insist that ¨legal, ethical, and transparent¨ processing of sensitive personal data will be crucial to maintaining public confidence in public institutions and in businesses.  Finally, the letter lays out ways of achieving that level of ethical data treatment, recommending the establishment of a multidisciplinary body to oversee compliance and avoid abuse.

STI: You were one of the 60 experts on privacy issues - some lawyers; some academics - who signed a letter to the spanish government.

MC: Yes.  A friend of mine, a legal scholar from University of Granada asked me if I wanted to join and sign, and I thought it to be a good action.

"We need more discussion on how to better deal with global crises"

STI: What is the purpose of this letter?

MC: It asks the government to pay attention to the potential problems related to use of citizens’ data for dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. (It asks that data collection be proportional to the need for it; that it be handled with the utmost security; that it be limited in scope and time; that it be overseen by a neutral body of experts; and that it be kept out of the hands of private, profit-seeking initiatives).

STI: Why did you support the letter?

MC: For me it was important to support this letter to the Spanish government. I have noticed that all over the world, even in Europe, the response to COVID-19 has led to measures that restrict the freedom and sometimes the privacy of citizens. This includes the plans to use data from smartphones. Now of course I fully understand that in extraordinary situations, such as this crisis, we should consider different measures than in normal times. But I believe from an ethics point of view that we should at least have a discussion about the potential threats to ethics and the rights of citizens.”

STI: What was your personal reaction to the way european governments have dealt with the crisis?

MC: Personally, I am very surprised that it takes so little to move from a liberal and democratic situation to one that feels more like an authoritarian system. The lockdown situation feels very strange: you’re not supposed to go outside, police are patrolling and enforcing the prohibition on gathering even a few people together, people look at one other suspiciously, etc. I’m a bit shocked by all this, and am really wondering why there is not more protest against or at least discussion about the rather extensive measures that are being taken. I think it is important to keep a healthy critical attitude towards any kind of government, especially when a government takes “exceptional” measures.

STI: What does this mean for your work as a researcher?

MC: I think we need more discussion on how to best deal with global crises: the climate crisis, the economic crisis, technological threats, and of course pandemics. Philosophers can contribute to this, for example by employing political philosophy (something I also argued for in Barcelona at STI’s ‘Technology and the Good Society’ Experts Meeting, by the way). I am currently doing this. We need more work on the role of technologies such as AI in dealing with these problems, and on what freedom means today in times of global crises.”