COVID-19: the fear of a Police State created a State of policemen

Originally published in Italian by

The Italian controversies on contact-tracing highlights a cultural failure: the misunderstanding of privacy and how to protect it. In short: for fear of an abstract danger of a Police State, we have accepted the concrete fact of having transformed Italy into a State of policemen. A State where the concrete and immediate application of the law protecting public order and (health) safety is entrusted with confusing rules applied arbitrarily.

This is a technical rather than political issue because in policing health emergency, we forgot about the aspects of public order and security. Overlooking that in this matter local governments do not have real autonomy the legislative chaos that has resulted, created a deluge of obscure norms. The enforcement of this entangled legislation required the use not only of the public security forces but also of the military (initially, not exactly impeccable from the normative point of view).

Vice versa, months passed without anyone deciding how to backtrace the movements and contacts of the infected, and how to detect the new patients using already available data and creating further instruments necessary for the purpose.

On the one hand, therefore, we have a Taiwanese or South Korean system where the crossing of even very personal information allows a tremendously effective – and transparent – management in the fight against contagion. On the other hand, there is “muscular” public security based on an inefficient deployment of men and means, useless to counter mass disobedience and too similar to scenes seen in other regimes with a “flexible” understanding of the word “democracy”.

The difference between the two models of security is all in the use of the conditional verbs and in the rhetorical artifice of creating the problem so that it admits one and only one solution, the one we are interested in supporting, without confronting reality. We must anonymize the data because “someone” – or, worse, “the State” – “could” abuse it.

This is not the classic “what-if” exercise used in project management or scenario analysis to (try to) predict the unexpected, but a semantics wholly detached from reality, in the name of which the mere invocation of “privacy” breaks down any rationality in the assumption of choices of public safety and health.

Let us start from a fact: the main instrument of the fight against contagion is the hunt for the plague-spreaders. We can use more politically correct terms and talk about contact-tracing or exposure notification, but in fact, we are talking about hunting for those who spread the virus.

Therefore, the issue requires us to address two issues.

The first: the hunt for plague-spreaders is not a matter of privacy but of respect for human dignity. If a State is forced to violate the most intimate sphere of a person to know if he or she is infected and whom he or she has potentially infected, the first concern is to ensure that this person is not treated, precisely, as a plague-spreader. We all remember, for example, the tickets posted on the doors of the homes of doctors and nurses who accused them of spreading the disease. No one’s privacy was at stake, but the dignity of work and individual sacrifice.

The second aspect is that it is not the “rest of the world” that has to bow to privacy, but it is the latter that has to take as many steps back as necessary to put the Coronavirus in a harmless condition. Privacy is not an überright – a super-constitutional norm – to which everyone else yields and, indeed, it is not even an autonomous right since its content is already protected by the Constitution (but that’s another matter).

The public debate, instead, has been consumed in an asphyxiated space occupied by the cumbersome presence of the privacy ghost, and where arguments such as, precisely, the social cost of “muscular” public security has found no space.

It is a well-known fact, at any level, that in an emergency, power is exercised by those who, in a given time and place, have the might to impose it. There is no room for “interpretations”, “rights” and “objections” that will be asserted later when, having arrived in Berlin, we see if there is still a judge who wants to deal with the case. In the immediate, however, in the name of muscular pubic security, each individual case is decided by operators to whom it is not correct to entrust such responsibility.

The question we must ask ourselves in terms of policymaking, therefore, is whether we are willing to accept a significant reduction in the spaces of public and private democracy in the name of the veneration of a fetish, privacy, which like the Phoenix Arab of Pietro Metastasio everyone says exists but where it is, nobody knows.

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