Church has no direct answer for COVID-19 digital tracking apps

A coronavirus surveillance digital tracking app the Italian government wants to introduce to help prevent coronavirus (COVID-19) to spread is generating resistance.

The “Immuni,” app, which can record where people go, was to have been introduced when the country’s gradual return to normality begins on 4 May.

It relies on Bluetooth, so the user has to have the app installed and Bluetooth active.

Authorities have been forced to roll back the app’s introduction because of resistance related to privacy, surveillance and ‘big government’.

So far neither the Italian church nor the Vatican have spoken out.

“From the viewpoint of the social teaching of the Church, it’s not a simple yes or no,” says Lorenzo Cantoni, who is a professor of information technology and new media at the Università della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland.

“On the one hand, there’s the value of protecting public health. On the other is individual privacy and freedom, which is to be protected and preserved.”

“Balancing these two principles is the issue, which is not at all easy.”

“If the tracking app would use my data to better allow the health system to take care of everyone, then I have to do it,” says Franciscan priest, Fr Paolo Benanti.

Benanti is an expert in artificial intelligence and the ethics of digital technology at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University. He is also a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and a consulter to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.

“But if my data will be extracted by an unjust central system that simply wants to control everyone, that’s not just. If my data will be used to make money, exploiting me, that’s unjust too,” he says.

“The real question is, what does a given app do and what’s behind it?”

Italian officials say they’ll attempt to find ways to incentivize use of the app rather than making it compulsory.

These incentives could include giving users direct access to doctors, allowing them to receive prescriptions and fast-track access to pharmacies.

Scientific advisors say that for the data generated to be effective, at least 60 percent of Italy’s population of roughly 60 million people will need to use the app.

Government officials say the software will be “open source,” meaning subject to public review and data will be deleted once COVID-19 is contained.

Benanti says the concept of a “right to privacy” as understood today is an artefact of 18th century political theory, especially as developed in the U.S.

The Church tends to focus more on care for the human person, of which privacy is one aspect, “but far from the most important.

“If privacy and life are at odds, life is clearly more fundamental,” he says.


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