Essay by Teresa Scassa: “Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, “trust” was a key concept for governments as they asked citizens to make a leap of faith into an increasingly digital and data-driven society. Canada’s Digital Charter was billed as a tool for “building a foundation of trust.” Australia’s Data & Digital Council issued Trust Principles. Trust was a key theme in “Strengthening Digital Government,” a statement from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yet, in spite of this focus on trust, a 2017 study suggested disturbingly low levels of citizen trust in government’s handling of their data in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further laid bare this lack of trust in government. In the debates around contact-tracing apps it became clear that Western governments did not enjoy public trust when it came to data and technology. When they sought to use technology to support public health contact tracing during a pandemic, governments found that a lack of trust seriously constrained their options. Privacy advocates resisted contact-tracing technologies, raising concerns about surveillance and function creep. They had only to refer to the post-9/11 surveillance legacy to remind the public that “emergency” measures can easily become the new normal.
Working with privacy advocates, Google and Apple developed a fully decentralized model for contact tracing that largely left public health authorities out of the loop. Not trusting governments to set their own parameters for apps, Google and Apple dictated the rules. The Google-Apple Exposure Notification system is limited to only one app per country (creating challenges for Canada’s complicated federalism). It relies on Bluetooth only and does not collect location data. It requires full decentralization of data storage, demands that any app built on the protocol be used voluntarily and ensures post-pandemic decommissioning. Governments that saw value in collecting some centralized data — and possibly some GPS data — to support their data analyses and modelling found themselves with apps that operated less than optimally on Android or iOS platforms or that faced interoperability challenges with other apps in the “return to normal” phase….(More)”.