Can geo-tracking really be effective on a voluntary basis?


The “Italian way” to the tracking of movements and contacts seems to have to reconcile respect for privacy and self-determination of people. Is it really possible to conciliate all these aspects?

Tracking the position of people can serve two distinct purposes:

  1. check whether the person complies with the social distancing and movement restriction rules (‘police health‘)
  2. identify the persons with whom contact has taken place or the places they have frequented (‘epidemiological inquiries’).

The first case, in turn, may concern a community, such as allowing Google to do with its mobility report, or an individual, for example, to check whether or not it has complied with the rules in force. If for the first aspect a significant percentage of people adhering is enough to understand the current trend, for the second it is necessary that the person voluntarily activates geo-location and agrees to be tracked. I do not think this is the case for those who are more reluctant to stay at home and observe the rules.

The second objective, i.e. to facilitate the task of the prevention and epidemiology services in reconstructing the contacts and the path of an infected person, is highly dependent on the number of people who agree to trace their movements. If an individual decides to download an app and activate geo-location, the tracking could indicate the places where he or she was in the previous days; in order to associate the places to the people, with the exception of the staff working there, it is necessary that other people have in turn installed and activated the app.

The voluntary choice of whether or not to activate an app can, therefore, have a significant impact on the overall effectiveness of the system. In some countries, where both for political reasons and for people’s civic sense, it was decided to put health protection before any consideration of privacy and personal freedom, the choice was clear.

In Italy, as well as in other European countries, the discussion on how to use these technologies is open, and the orientation seems to go in the direction of voluntariness.

It should be noted, however, that in order to counter the spread of the epidemic in Italy and other countries it was decided to apply a lockdown to the entire population, effectively limiting personal freedom (Articles 13 and 16 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic).

Now the question is why it was decided, without much discussion, to keep people at home (a measure that I share) and there is such reluctance to allow them to go out and track their movements for a limited period?

Then there is another important consideration to be made. All these forms of tracking require a smartphone and a minimum of practice in their use (e.g. having an account on an app store, being able to download an app, etc.). We know that there are many people who do not own a smartphone or do not know how to use it well. Many of them are elderly, but not only, but they are also often fragile or at risk.

What are we going to do with them?

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