Do these coronavirus contact tracing apps actually do what they are supposed to do? A philosophical discussion with technology writer and thinker Jürgen Geuter, also known on the web as tante.

As a follow-up to the previous episode of the podcast where I dove into contact tracing apps in technical detail, this episode of the The Private Citizen is a wider discussion of such apps and their effectiveness as well as their effects on our society.

For this, I’m talking to Jürgen Geuter, better known as tante, wo has been thinking and writing about technology and people for decades. He has written for a number of German and international publications such as ZEITOnline, Spiegel Online, VICE/Motherboard, Golem, Boundary2 and others. And he also writes a lot on his own website. If you want to support his work, he has a Patreon, too.

Today, he talks to me about PEPP-PT and contact tracing apps. We try to answer the question: Do we really need them and can they deliver us from the evil that is COVID-19?

A Critical Discussion of Coronavirus Tracing Apps

In our debate, Jürgen and myself touched on many aspects of this new idea of tracing virus carriers with apps, from the technical to the philosophical. I hope you enjoyed his wit and insight as much as I did.

→ Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Timothy Morton


Evgeny Kuznetsov writes in reference to episode 15:

Hi Fabsh!

Thanks for the analysis, still in the process of enjoying it now. Already feel the need to jump in with a comment.

You’ve mentioned Russia together with China and some other countries as a user of a “low-tech” QR-code solution for the tracing of COVID-19 spreading and contacting. You may be right, but from what I see here in Moscow it looks like you’re wrong.

Disclaimer: Russian government and our President seem to be reluctant to take responsibility for COVID-19 spread in Russia and for the associated limitations of our liberties, so all of a sudden this March we were reminded that Russia is actually a Federation (contrary to all the political trends of last 20+ years), and the Subjects of Federations (our counterparts of the German Bundesländer) are allowed and encouraged to put up their own COVID-fighting policies as they see fit. I live in Moscow, so I can only speak for Moscow and Moscow Region (these are two separate Subjects of Federation, but the current rules regarding the whole COVID-19 theme are similar in these two).

We do indeed have QR-codes. These QR-codes are basically the IDs of our individual passes that we can get online, by phone or via SMS. Without and individual pass (or rather, the ID of the individual pass, in the form of a QR-code or just an alpha-numeric string) a citizen is not allowed to commute, either by public transport, including taxis, or by a car.

Yes, that’s how democratic and liberal we are now. The current rules in Moscow say that you are not to leave your house or apartment for any reason other than going to work (in cases you’re allowed to go to work), going to a doctor, experiencing an emergency, going to the nearest place where you can buy food and groceries, going to the nearest drugstore, or walking your dog, in which case you should at all times be no further than 100 meters from your place of residence. You don’t need an individual pass (and the QR-code) to walk (but you still should be obeying the rules about why you have left your house), but you need it to use transport, bicycles included.

As I said already, you get your individual pass online or by other means. To get it you have to disclose your identity (including your passport data), your reason for commute, and the means you plan to commute by (your car’s license plates, your city transport card number, etc). You are immediately granted a pass, but that pass can later be revoked if people that check it figure out that your emloyer didn’t request permission to get you to the office (which every employer other than medical facilities should have done for the workers that can’t work remotely), or that your employer is a barbershop that is forbidden to keep working anyway, or that the doctor you claim to be visiting doesn’t have an appointment with you today, or that helping your sick parents isn’t an emergency after all.

If you try to take a bus or subway, and your transport card is not linked to a valid individual pass, you can’t get in. If you drive your car past a traffic cam and your plates are not linked to a valid individual pass, you get fined. If you bump into a policeman and fail to either show your individual pass (QR-code or alpha-numeric) or prove that you are going to/from the nearest grocery store/drugstore or walking your dog withing 100 m of your place of residence, you are fined. And that’s all your individual pass (and the associated QR-code) is used for.

You don’t scan it when you enter buildings or visit places. You don’t even need it to go to your local grocery shop. In fact, these QR-codes are quite useless for contact analysis, and I have not heard or read anything about any intent to use them for this reason. They are obviously not designed with contact analysis in mind. The are designed to enforce the legally imposed self-isolation rules, and that’s about it.

As for contact analysis, as far as I’m aware (and I teach at a medical university, so I probably am less informed than epidemiologists, but more informed than the average person) it’s all done the old-school way, with phone calls and questioning.

Yours truly, LO’s own Russian correspondent, Evgeny

If you also have thoughts on the things discussed here, please feel free to contact me.

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