The pandemic has shown us how it is necessary to include new technologies and the infrastructures that support them among the strategic sectors. But citizens should never be asked to choose between health and privacy, between freedom and well-being such technologies cannot, therefore, be in the hands of private companies. It is the public sector that should invest in the key sectors of research and move quickly towards the development of technologies whose use is guaranteed to the whole population, enhancing and enhancing the skills of universities and public research centers and having transparency as a beacon.
The time has come to reiterate the importance of the public to guarantee primary services to citizens and to manage the structures and tools necessary not only to face extraordinary moments such as emergencies but also to develop a widespread and equally distributed well-being population. One thing that the pandemic has revealed to us is that already today in the category of strategic sectors it is necessary to include that of new technologies, together with the infrastructures that support them. Technologies that make it possible to bring people together during social distancing, facilitate smart working or continue in school teaching.
China and South Korea have managed to stem the advance of the virus also thanks to digital tools that have made it possible to quickly trace the infected and limit their range of action, at the expense of individual freedoms and privacy. If the constant control of citizens is nothing new in a country like China, where dystopian practices such as the Social Credit System have long been initiated, Seoul’s position has put other democracies faced with the dilemma of choosing between health and privacy of citizens. These days, countries such as Germany, England, Italy, and the European Union as a whole, are evaluating the opportunity to use applications that can help in reducing the infection thanks to active population monitoring.
Establishing which right has priority is not easy in general, let alone in a situation like the present one where the urgencies of reducing the number of victims and avoiding the collapse of health structures are understandably the master. But as Yuval Noah Harari recently wrote in the Financial Times, asking people to choose between health and privacy is wrong in principle. It is the re-proposition in a “pandemic sauce” of the famous trolley problem, back in fashion with the advent (coincidentally) of artificially driven cars. A misplaced dilemma, since citizens should never be placed in a position to choose between freedom and well-being: they should always have both guaranteed.
But if we move away from the emergency for a moment, we can ask ourselves how the balance between services and privacy protection is set today. The market of electronic commerce, applications, and social networks has raked in an almost infinite amount of data able to trace in detail the habits, preferences, and psychological profiles of users. Data that, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal teaches us, are not only used to sell us the further product of the consumer machine. Not only that: in many countries, governments have long begun to sell the management of services of crucial social importance, and above all rich in extremely sensitive data, to private companies.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that two companies like Google and Apple are at the forefront of developing those apps that should now track coronavirus infections. But if essential services such as health, education, or transport are transferred into the hands of large technology companies, the role of public administration and politics, in general, is lost: in a smart city of the future, optimized thanks to Google algorithms, it would still make sense. for citizens to elect their own mayor, or should they vote for the CEO of a Silicon Valley company?
Again, it would be wrong to ask people to choose between the advantages of technological development and not wanting to become a bargaining chip on the Big Data market. The state must commit and invest to ensure both. Of course, it would be absurd (and potentially more terrifying, China does) to replace “Surveillance Capitalism” with an Orwellian-type state. But the advantage that democratic systems have is that the possible transfer of privacy in exchange for better services would not be in favor of private companies over which individuals have no say, but in favor of public structures and bodies that fall within participation and control practices, therefore subject to the constant judgment of citizens.
The time has come, no longer postponable, for the public to invest heavily in key areas of research and move quickly towards the development, firsthand, of new technologies whose use is guaranteed to the entire population and whose economic benefits contribute to redistribution. of wealth and the support of a “general will” that is not simply the sum of individuals and their personal interests. To do this without falling into Orwellian scenarios, these technologies must be developed by enhancing (and enhancing) the skills present in universities and public research centers, but above all having transparency as a beacon: both in programming, and in access and use that the State will make of the collected data.
As history teaches us, and as confirmed by a recent CNR survey on trust in institutions about the Coronavirus, States enjoy moments like this of greater trust. But the real test will be that of reconstruction. The public must not miss the opportunity to relaunch itself in many crucial sectors for the economy and the well-being of citizens. To do this, it will have to overcome its limits and endemic distortions with humility and a critical sense, but also looking to the future and intervening in those sectors that will be the tip of the balance of national and international balances in the coming years.