Conditions for technological solutions in a COVID-19 exit strategy

Which legal, ethical and societal conditions need to be fulfilled for the use
of digital solutions in managing the COVID-19 exit-strategy?

This was the central question of research that was commissioned by ZonMw, and conducted by the Institute for Information Law (IViR), the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) and Information, Communication & the Data Society (ICDS), led by Prof. Natali Helberger, Prof. Joris van Hoboken and Dr. Sarah Eskens.  

Digital technologies can be part of solutions to societal challenges, for example to manage the pandemic and lead the Netherlands out of the COVID-19 crisis. One set of technologies that figured particularly prominently in that debate was the use of contact tracing apps like the CoronaMelder, as well as digital vaccination passports (CoronaCheck app). 

In the Netherlands, Europe and worldwide, the introduction of apps such as the CoronaMelder or the CoronaCheck app was met by criticism from experts, politicians, civil society and academics. Concerns range from the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of such apps, uncertainty about the conditions that need to be fulfilled to reach their goal, our growing dependency on technology companies up to worries about the fundamental rights and adverse effects for vulnerable groups, such as elderly or users without a smart phone.

The overall goal of the research was to monitor the societal, ethical and legal implications of implementing apps like the CoronaMelder, and from that draw lessons for the future use of ‘technology-assisted governance solutions’. One important conclusion from the report, Prof Helberger explains, is that

‘there are no easy technological fixes, and in order for a technological solution to work, it needs to be part of a broader vision on what such a solution needs to function in society, achieve its intended goals and respect the fundamental rights of users as well as non-users.’

The report also offers critical reflections on the need for democratic legitimisation and accountability, the role of big tech and insights on the societal impact of the CoronaMelder and other technological solutions.

Conditions for technological solutions in a COVID-19 exit strategy, with particular focus on the legal and societal conditions, Report for ZonMw, September 2021, N. Helberger, S. Eskens, J. Strycharz, G. Bouchè, J. van Hoboken, J. van Mil, J. Toh, with N. Appelman, J. van Apeldoorn, M. van Eechoud, N. van Doorn, M. Sax and C. de Vreese