Why proximity-tracing is important and its integrity should be contextual

We want to break free

Let me start with a disclaimer: I have been going through my quarantine in Italy and I’m in stuck in a military-enforced total lockdown since March 11th. I’m also keeping in close contact with medics and know fairly well the situations in hospitals over here. It doesn’t matter if you believe or not this virus is a serious threat: when a lockdown is declared, everyone is affected.

and that’s how I feel going through my days

I’m not saying that “if you haven’t experienced this you know nothing”, but make sure you understand it well before drawing the conclusion that proximity-tracing is evil. Then make up your mind about an exit strategy.

Because we will all need an exit strategy: imagine how to handle the logistic curve after the inflection and what will be everyday life after this emergency. It is clear that the macro-economical tsunami that is going to hit everyone’s shore is so big that there isn’t a hill high enough to be careless.

Imagine surfing the logistic curve

Lets start sketching the needs of the exit scenarios: they are all, in a way or another, related to restart the activity in crowded spaces for which “telework” cannot work forever. Schools, factories, offices… and lets be honest, we also need to be back in pubs and hit again some dance-floor.

I believe that proximity-tracing has incentives for its use and does not need to be obligatory.

Lets face the reality of the emergency and accept the fact that people will want to opt-in into proximity-tracing to gain freedom.

What are the risks

Of course thinking of a nation-wide, Europe-wide or even World-wide proximity-tracing system should give the shivers to anyone relying on privacy for political and professional reasons, also medics are affected by the very existence of such systems, discriminating them as subjects at risks for going in and out of hospitals. As in any system of this kind exceptions should be contemplated and the open-world assumption applied ad-hoc to special cases, while general privacy requirements should be applied: here is a great round-up by the Chaos Computer Club.

To balance Privacy and Urgency

I’m sharing all my reasoning here as I believe is important to go beyond the rhetorical polarization between privacy and urgency. The mediation is made possible when adding a new dimension to the discourse which is about context and scale of the system. To do this I propose the application of Helen Nissenbaum’s concept of Privacy as Contextual Integrity.

it is NOT OK to have “one app to trace them all” (artwork by Jason Ivens)

Don’t trust profit-driven organisations to manage data. Systems engineered for a social purpose should be governed according to social concerns and priorities.

What we need big-tech corporations to provide different constituencies with is the access to build and distribute purpose-driven applications adhering to principles of privacy and decentralization. Bluntly put, all they need to do is provide fair access to the digital infrastructure: because that is not really there, locked away from developers by means of app market policies and low-level hardware access locks.

I believe is very bad if Google+Apple will develop the app and provide this service to the world. But they aren’t! providing an SDK is a good contribution to our needs!

Companies are welcome to improve their APIs and grant community and public-sector developers access to markets. Thanks to new technologies nor companies (TELCOs) nor States need to provide a world-wide service for tracing. If a private central entity does (i.e. TELCO state monopoly or mega-corp) should be addressed as an anti-trust issue and seen as an attempt of data-grabbing because their data-correlation capacity is immense. If a public central entity does (State, Police etc.) it should be seen as a violation of civil rights.

Is monitoring all we need?


We need zero-knowledge proof credentials and localized adaptable open source frameworks for on-site and on-line authentication.

People trying their best to comply with the situation and protect their family must be guaranteed that no-one wearing a uniform will prevaricate the role and take advantage. If you think I’m exaggerating here is just because you haven’t seen from close what happened in Egypt in the past 20 years.

going on like this we may end up wearing our self-certified declarations as t-shirts

 by the author.



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