COVID-19: Contact-Tracing in Italy between Science and Religion

The public debate in Italy on contact tracing is  rightly focused on the “obscurity” of how the Government has chosen the software, how does the software works and on concerns – more than about “privacy” – about the way citizens’ data are selected, collected and managed.

There are, however, two issues that would have needed a preemptive consideration.

Firstly, about the technological solution identified – or rather, “blessed” by the Italian Government: Bluetooth.

For days and days, the more or less technically competent narrative had crowned the Bluetooth as the only tool capable of achieving effective contact tracing. Then, some Jiminy Cricket (in English, and therefore unfortunately not intelligible in Italy where the “no spik inglisc” is a boast and not a shame) advanced some doubts about the fact that, for example, the range of the Bluetooth is excessive and therefore can generate unreliable results. The thing is so evident that Google has included the possibility to attenuate the signal strength among the features that can be managed via API by third-party programmers.

class? ?MatchingOptions? {? ?/**
* The signal strength attenuation value that must be reached within the exposure * duration? ?before the match is returned to the client. Attenuation is defined
* as the advertiser's TX power minus the scanner's RSSI.
*
* This value must have range 0-255.
*/

If using Bluetooth has issues, and before Google allowed a way to mitigate it, this was not possible, how did the Government decide that software A was better than software B?

How did the Government decide that this particular software was fit for the job?

Which brings us to the second issue, which is related to providing answers without knowing questions.

In theory, contact-tracing software could:

  • allow one to understand ex-post, once one was infected, whom they came into contact with,
  • warn in real-time if somebody is close to an infected person
  • enable people to avoid dangerous places due to the presence of infected people, crowds or both,
  • inform the authorities if someone is violating the mandatory quarantine,
  • allow everything, nothing or maybe anything else – like sharing data with medical-scientific research.

Deciding which options to pursue is not a technical or “privacy” issue but a matter of public policy, i.e. of the definition of public health protection objectives. But since there is no trace of this debate – at least publicly – it is difficult to disagree with the aforementioned Jiminy Cricket when he concludes:

All that said, I suspect the tracing apps are really just do-something-itis. Most countries now seem past the point where contact tracing is a high priority; even Singapore has had to go into lockdown. If it becomes a priority during the second wave, we will need a lot more contact tracers: last week, 999 calls in Cambridge had a 40-minute wait and it took ambulances six hours to arrive. We cannot field an app that will cause more worried well people to phone 999.

Which brings us directly to another important and neglected issue: the relationship between science, technology and the ability of the policymaker to understand to decide. As I write in an (I hope) forthcoming article,

In principle, looking at science as a constituent element of a political choice poses four orders of problems:
– not everything that is called “science” is science;
– science offers explanations and not certainties with limited validity;
– being a good scientist does not imply also having political sensitivity;
– a political decision can diverge from a scientific evaluation by way of opportunity – or ignorance.

In the case of the Italian contact tracing software (which yet another nudging application led Google to rename in a less threatening “Exposure Notification”) there are no elements to understand how the software was selected.

This happens not only and not so much because you don’t know how it works, there is no evidence of what data it collects and how it manages them, but because, precisely, who decides continues to give answers to questions that are not there.

COVID-19, consumers and advertising

The “social distancing” causes, among other things, the rethinking of purchase habits. It is not just a matter of stop spending to survive the current economic crisis. The point is changing priorities and attitude towards objectively useless goods, regardless of the perceived “needs”.

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities,” Oscar Wilde wrote not long ago, but this age is hopefully over. Living secluded shows that our belongings are mostly sufficient to meet daily needs. The absence of social opportunities makes it useless flashing the latest smartphone. The need to work remotely focuses attention on the tools that allow us to do it better, more than on other “compulsive shopping” distractions. We realize first-hand, in other words, how much the superfluous weighs in our lives and how much and what we can do with fewer things. Continue reading “COVID-19, consumers and advertising”

COVID-19: Italy between USA and China

This article published by an American information blog is interesting because it shows how national interests lead to “biased” conclusions.

Indeed, as the author of the article points out, the “generosity” of China towards Italy is far from disinterested, but from here to hypothesize that China has even first promoted the contagion by pushing Italians to hug the Italy-resident Chinese and then send aid to strengthen control over our country there is a huge logical and factual gap.

Although the Italian Government is not proving to be in its finest hours, it is fractiously “questionable” to say that

It wasn’t chance. It wasn’t age. It wasn’t overall health, and it wasn’t the good-hearted nature of the Italian people that caused the virus to ravage their nation. It was a leadership who are now under the thumb of the Chinese government.

The entire focus of this analysis is the relationship between “bad Chinese” and “Italians sold by the Government to the foreign powers”. Still, it fails to evaluate the outcomes of the USA strategic choices based on “disengagement” from the EU and the adoption of aggressive behaviours – such as customs duties – towards Countries like Italy which are (still) allies of America, but of which America is no longer.

If the concern that China may take advantage of Italy’s miserable economic and political conditions should rightly be exposed, it should also be made clear that this has been – or will be – possible also thanks to the American administration’s “disengagement” from the European and Italian scenarios.

To look at the issue from a philosophical perspective: when somebody creates a void, he cannot complain if someone else fills it.

Power, like Nature, is haunted by horror vacui.

COVID-19 and morbidity in professional information in Italy

The management of an emergency relies upon hope because hope is what drives people not to “give up”. It is, therefore, essential to intervene on the unscrupulous behaviour of those media which, with the excuse of “inform”, foment anxiety and confusion.

Fake news aside, which by now like bacteria have permanently installed themselves in the body of social networks, the negative role embodied by “professional” information and entertainment is becoming increasingly apparent.

Despite the invitation – that nothing more than this could be – of the Communications Authority to talk about COVID-19 using authoritative sources there is a proliferation of television broadcasts providing unreliable data or feeding debates whose only purpose is to raise controversy. Continue reading “COVID-19 and morbidity in professional information in Italy”

COVID-19: destroying (or failing to collect) geolocalization data of the infected people harms Science

In Italy, a “snobbish” conception of the right to privacy and the protection of personal data are about to cause a sensational mistake in the fight against COVID-19: that of destroying (or not collecting) the geolocation data of infected subjects.

The right to privacy can certainly be limited for higher interests, as was the case with freedom of expression, freedom of movement and public gathering and economic freedom. Moreover, the GDPR, if applicable in an emergency regime, would impose nonetheless to protect ALL fundamental rights and freedoms, therefore, life first, and not only “privacy”. Continue reading “COVID-19: destroying (or failing to collect) geolocalization data of the infected people harms Science”