Privacy and getting our lives back

I was pleased to hear from the Catholic church on Easter Sunday that we should rely on Science, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to beat the coronavirus.  Itís just a shame that the Holy Spirit doesnít reveal some hard facts on the nature of the beast weíre trying to overcome. After all, it is one of Godís creations, so the Holy Spirit should have inside knowledge, unless the members of the Trinity are maintaining social distancing from each other. Such information would help a lot, just as it would have helped with the Spanish flue and the black death. With or without the inspiration apparently on offer, though, weíre going to have to try to find ways to restart our lives and our economies as best we can. The virus is not going to go away any time soon; it is unlikely to commit suicide.

Of course, there is an argument from evolutionary theory that we can expect it to mutate into something less virulent. The most successful, the most enduring, parasites, donít do too much harm to their host, but keep it as a long-term source of nourishment Ė rather like the tape-worm.  In the case of this virus, it is inadvertently pushing us into taking steps to prevent its spread simply because our symptoms arenít just annoying like, say a cold, but actually kill at least some of us.  But then probably the virus isnít aware of the finer points of neo-darwinism or, more to the point, human intelligence and so our ability to act very quickly, at least in evolutionary terms.  If though there is a mutation to a less nasty version, say Corvid 19.2, then it would have a better chance of indefinite survival than Covid 19.1, as we wouldnít be so willing to spend whatever it takes to kill it off.

One very optimistic Oxford Professor has said that there is an 80% probability that we will get a vaccine in September. I really hope sheís right! But even so, we still have to cope with the period up until then, plus the period taken to effect international mass vaccination.  There is also the possibility that any vaccine will not have a long term effect. It depends on how the vaccine works, but if it is based on antibodies and if, for a variety of reasons, those antibodies have effect only for a limited time, then a vaccine relying on them will be similarly time-limited. This is in part why we donít have a vaccine against the common cold. It means that in the absence of effective drugs to combat the virus, then we will have to adjust our life-styles somewhat.

Over time, we have learned that sewerage systems are good and that we should clean our teeth at least twice every day.  So then, we might be able to alter our normal behaviour further. What is being said is that we must learn to break the chain of infection through own individual actions. We are doing this at the moment by not going out. This cannot continue indefinitely though and so, at least until an antiviral drug turns up, we need to learn to continue to wash our hands, not shake hands with people and not touch our faces nearly as much as we now do - all in order to reduce the transfer of the virus to the pathways into our bodies. Now of course we could rely on homeopathy to supplement the fight against the virus at £150 the consultation, or invest in a $14 pointed quartz radionics crystal, or a variable frequency electrically-powered Gaza pyramid (from $500), or the $700 Nubian style pyramid for even more healing power. But all that only takes us so far. It seems that what is now proposed by the government is that we should use our mobile phones, the internet and Bluetooth to save us.

The mysterious-sounding NHS-X, in fact the NHS digital services section, has looked at an app used in Singapore to alert its citizens to their having come into contact with someone who later tests positive. This means that all who have ben in contact can then self-isolate for say 10 days following that contact. The strategy has seemingly worked well in limiting the fatalities from the virus, both there and also in South Korea. There are obviously three potential difficulties with this Ė the need for mass testing, the question of privacy and then the degree of compliance needed. Mass testing of people to see if they actually have the virus is obviously possible because itís being done not only in the far East, but also in Germany.  We are promised that we shall be doing 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month and so the testing side of things should be possible.

The main difficulty is that of privacy.  Those who sign up to the proposed app will have their phones doing what we shouldn't:  shaking hands - by Bluetooth - with other phones within a very limited radius and so leaving a notification that it, and so you, were close to that other phone.  It sounds a bit police-state.  But it wouldnít actually say where your close encounter took place Ė simply that it had taken place, which also means that it does not involve the use of so much data.  It seems that the Singapore version is accepted precisely because it isnít seen by the users to be unduly intrusive. The data goes to the health service, which uses it to notify you that you have been near to someone-else who was infected.  It does not get sent to the police or used by the government for other purposes. 

Here, Matt Hancock has said that the data would be kept for a very limited period, would be anonymised and only used for the notifications and for data gathering for the purposes of research into the spread of the virus.  If he can persuade us that this is all true, then I can see that it would be worth the giving up of my privacy to that extent.  After all, I am not one who believes that human rights are inalienable. As long as about 60% of us are willing to comply, then the statisticians tell us that the scheme should work to enable us to keep the spread of the virus from taking off again.  It would be a sort of electronic vaccine, but without the needle.

The government is proposing to release us from lock-down sector by sector, although quite how those sectors will be defined, I am not clear.  I would guess that it might be done based on the type of work people did, and/or their age, with probably the older section of the population being last to be released from house arrest.  Signing up to the software might be able to provide a further incentive from the government to enable you to resume normal activity.  So then, there would be a slightly unlovely trade-off between having to stay at home or accept the intrusion into our privacy. The government has already promised to release the full source code for examination by geek world, but I think that it should also await the general agreement of our MPs after  they get back to Parliament later this month and so can debate its rights, wrongs, implications and time limits. What will be essential, if this is to work, is a collaborative political approach and complete openness with the public. In those circumstances, we are far more likely to accept what would otherwise be a very unwelcome intrusion into our lives.

Paul Buckingham

14 April 2020

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