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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *