Since March, The Correspondent has been tracking how countries are using surveillance technology to respond to the spread of the coronavirus. We’ve already documented how governments have turned to contact-tracing apps, telecom tracking and self-assessment apps to curb the spread of the virus. But it’s clear that few leaders have the power to impose an unwanted technology on its population without risking disgruntled voters or – at best – low uptake, which can render these tools irrelevant. That’s why what’s known as “data cultures” has become so important.
Governments must suddenly be hyper-attentive to how a population perceives their relationship with their data. Are they a tech-savvy population, more comfortable than most with government tracking, like the Chinese? Or does the presence of a generation that can remember the Nazi Gestapo and the East German Stasi leave a natural aversion to anything resembling state surveillance, like in Germany?
To find out more about how different countries perceive their governments’ use of their data, The Correspondent asked three journalists and tech observers to send us “postcards” from their home countries – Japan, Brazil and South Africa. Each illustrates how data cultures can vary wildly, depending on history, income inequality, or this can be a dynamic that is yet to be defined.
Japan’s acceptance of the new Apple-Google contact-tracing app marks a significant departure from a tradition of being fiercely protective of its citizens’ privacy – a national trait left over from a betrayal during the country’s experience of the second world war.
In Brazil, a country where the data debate still feels new, a lawyer grapples with a fast-moving, data-hungry governor to force a slower, more conscientious approach while the wider public looks on, largely uninterested.
And in South Africa, the idea of a data culture is only relevant to half the country’s population because of intense digital inequality, leaving governments with a cool attitude towards developers trying to promote their products.
How privacy-conscious Japan was won over by Apple and Google
By Yohtaro Hamada, reporter at The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s five national newspapers.
Tokyo, Japan – As South Korea and China lean heavily on data collection in their coronavirus response, attitudes in Japan mean the government here has had to adopt an approach that is distinct from its neighbours. Traditionally, the Japanese are defensive of their privacy, especially in relation to government surveillance. Unlike other countries in east Asia, Japan only introduced a national ID number in 2015 and its use remains limited.
The government has even struggled to convince people to allow them to collect financial data for reasons linked to tax and financial support. To ease economic hardship caused by the pandemic, this spring prime minister Shinzo Abe arranged for 100,000 yen (almost $1,000) to be distributed to every citizen, regardless of their income – largely because authorities had few ways to verify who was in need of financial support.
This government mistrust can be traced back to the memory of the second world war. During the four years Japan was fighting the US, people were constantly fed false reports that Japan was winning and ordinary people were pressured to report each other to the authorities if anyone behaved in a way judged to be unpatriotic. When the Emperor suddenly announced his unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces in August 1945, a deep sense of betrayal reverberated around the country, leaving people with long-term suspicion surrounding government attempts to cover up the truth and put citizens under surveillance.
This history meant privacy concerns were quickly raised in April, as soon as Japan’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) began openly discussing using a smartphone app for coronavirus contact tracing. But when it was announced that the Japanese government would use the system developed by Apple and Google, those anxieties were quickly alleviated. While countries like the UK and France have been suspicious of big tech’s involvement in contact tracing, privacy-conscious Japan was immediately reassured by these companies’ involvement.
The Japanese public’s reassurance by the partnership with big tech may be at least partially attributed to a group of activists who call themselves the “privacy freaks”. For years, these activists, who are affiliated with Japan’s Institute of Law and Information Systems, have assumed a “watchdog role” over data privacy, criticising companies and government agencies whenever they violate privacy or use personal data without clearly notifying their users.
Five days after the Japanese government launched its version of the Apple/Google app, called COCOA, Hiromitsu Takagi, one of the most influential cyber-security researchers among these “freaks”, praised Apple and Google for designing its API in a privacy-friendly manner. He explained that because the companies have been so historically criticised for their handling of personal data, they have both evolved to understand the importance of privacy protection and “they have designed API so perfectly, no one can criticise them”. Since then, there has been hardly any criticism against COCOA.
By 11 August, the app had been downloaded 12.74 million times, amounting to 10% of Japan’s total population of 126 million. If tested positive, a user of this app is issued a unique registration number to enter voluntarily. Only then would others who had close contact with the infected person be notified.
But if the government wants the app to really be effective, that download rate will need to keep climbing. Abe’s government will be hoping that Japan is ready to move on from its traditional attitudes towards privacy and instead heed Takagi’s advice – to treat the app like a face mask to prevent the spread of the infection.
The governor and the lawyer fighting to define Brazil’s data debate
By Laís Martins, a freelance journalist based in São Paulo who previously worked with Reuters Brazil.
São Paulo, Brazil – By the first few days of April, the state of São Paulo, in the southeast of Brazil, was the country’s Covid-19 epicentre. The virus had arrived in the country at the end of February through a man travelling from Italy. But with nearly 1,000 new cases being recorded per day in the state, paulistas, as state residents are called, were not staying home.
On 9 April, the state governor João Doria, announced the launch of a system in partnership with private telecom companies to check on stay-at-home compliance. By sharing location data from their mobile users, the telecoms enabled the government to produce isolation indexes and heat maps, identifying in which areas of the state the population was not following the orders.
But a news report by Brazilian outlet UOL later revealed that that announcement in early April was just for show. The system had already been implemented more than 20 days before a deal with telecoms was formalised.
While Doria was playing all his cards to try to contain the virus in his state, which has a population of 44 million people, a 38-year-old lawyer played his own card against the governor. Believing the telecoms tracking was a risk to individual rights, Caio Zacharias decided to file an injunction to have his phone line removed from the monitoring database. He told UOL, he felt invaded and he feared for the secrecy of his work. A judge conceded. Zacharias is now one of the few paulistas to be exempt from the system.
Zacharias’s request, one of many arriving at courts across the country, illustrates the diverging opinions around the use of Brazilians’ personal data during this pandemic – a new topic in the country. On one side, regional governments are rushing to use all tools available to them to fight the virus, and on the other, lawyers and researchers are trying to force a more conscientious approach – to make sure data is being used in a way that is legal and proportionate.
With increasing demonstrations of authoritarianism from both the federal government and governments on the state level, critics say the rushed and obscure use of private data deserves special attention. "The main risk of this activity is the individual’s identification based on data that is, at first, anonymous, but that when crossed [with] a second [data point], leads directly to the person [who is] using that phone line," explains Ana Lara Mangeth, Rights & Technology Researcher at ITS Rio.
Meanwhile, the discussion goes unnoticed by most Brazilians. The country had not seen a broad conversation on data privacy until very recently, when the so-called “Fake News” bill sparked the debate. "Brazilians don’t have the real idea of the dimension and implications of this topic to their private lives," Zacharias told me.
In South Africa, digital inequality creates challenge for tracing tools
By Oarabile Mudongo, a Research Fellow with Cape Town based thinktank Research ICT Africa.
Cape Town, South Africa – South Africa is witnessing a surge of coronavirus cases, with the official number of infections now surpassing half a million. “The storm that we have consistently warned South Africans about is now arriving,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in July. Despite these figures, the government has been toying with new technologies to help lift the country’s lockdown restrictions, eager to avoid a crushing blow to an already struggling economy.
In April, details were published about how a national tracing database – which collects data from multiple sources – was being developed. There were also reports that the government was considering using a digital contact-tracing app called Covi-ID, which had been launched by a group including university researchers and private companies.
But not everyone in South Africa has access to a smartphone to benefit from digital contact-tracing technologies.
According to a 2018 survey by the thinktank I work with, Research ICT Africa (RIA), just 53% of the South African population is connected – pointing to an issue of digital inequality. The lack of smartphones and digital literacy, both of which are related with poverty, are the main barriers to bringing people online. Smartphones remain unaffordable for many people. RIA found 36% of people claimed the cost of smart devices are the main reason they were not online, 15% said the Internet was too expensive, and 47% mentioned the cost of data as one of the reasons they limit their use.
The country’s two major telecommunication companies, MTN and Vodacom, reduced their data prices from R149 ($9) per one GB to R99 ($6) per GB in April 2020. But Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of market research firm World Wide Worx, told South African media outlet Business Day “this still did not address the need for truly low-cost data for the poor”.
This digital divide would therefore limit the majority of the population from using any digital contact-tracing application, restricting its reach and effectiveness by excluding vulnerable groups without smartphone access.
Conscious of this risk, the Covi-ID app has tried to be inclusive by enabling people without smartphones to print their QR code and carry around a paper version. However, these QR codes are only available via the Google Play Store and the Covi-ID website, meaning people must still be able to access a friend or family member’s phone or computer to participate in the system.
Perhaps this is the reason why the government has not yet endorsed the app. Co-Pierre Georg, one of the developers behind Covi-ID, complained about a lack of government interest in a blog post earlier this month. “We have sent, literally, thousands of emails to government officials trying to get their buy-in for a privacy-preserving contact tracing solution for South Africa,” he wrote. “And while we had fantastic support from the CSIR and the Department of Science and Technology, there has been no meaningful engagement from either the National Department of Health, or the Department of Health in the Western Cape.”
This is not just a challenge facing South Africa. Other countries, such as the UK, share similar challenges. “Those people [without internet access] risk being shut out of attempts to build a smartphone-based contact-tracing app, unless the government urgently funds ways to bridge the gap with digital training and support,” said Liz Williams, CEO of UK-based organisation FutureDotNow, which is running a campaign to get the most vulnerable connected.“My concern is it has the potential to add to social divides.”