Like many states, Germany is currently on lockdown. Bars, restaurants and stores are shuttered. The border is closed. Groups of more than two people are verboten. Capital city Berlin, known for its street culture and clubbing, falls silent each night. DJs have taken to the streams, trying to claw back revenue lost to Coronavirus. It’s not going well.
The measures appear, however, to be working. The number of cases reported each day is falling slightly. Deaths are remarkably low. Angela Merkel’s government, which has few cashflow issues, is pondering an $810 million post-virus stimulus package it hopes will keep Europe’s largest economy on the straight-and-narrow.
That has not stopped one of the Bundestag‘s virus-fighting methods receiving considerable ire – in German homes and the nation’s corridors of power. Last week the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s leading medical authority, announced it was receiving 5Gb of data from Deutsche Telekom (DK), the country’s biggest telecommunications provider.
The information, DK claimed, would help the RKI track people’s movements under lockdown, and investigate how COVID-19 spreads through a population. “We see it as a meaningful concept,” the institute’s head Lothar Wieler told media.
Similar initiatives have launched across Europe. A1 is donating data in Austria, while Vodafone has assisted officials in the Italian state of Lombardy – one of the worst-affected areas of the Coronavirus crisis. South Korea and China have used mobile data to track and contain the virus.
Last weekend a 48-hour hackathon entitled “Us VS Virus” (“WirVSVirus“), inspired by a smaller event in Estonia, gathered over 1,500 pitches for ideas as to how to stem COVID-19’s assault. “These participants have, in these hours, remade the Internet as it once was: a meeting place of the best and most open kind,” said Professor Helge Braun, head of the German federal chancellory.
Furthermore, Politico reports that the RKI is set to release an app that will allow Germans the opportunity to hand over data via fitness trackers. If successful, it will give epidemiologists the chance to potentially discover new pockets of the virus. The more data, from different verticals, the team is able to obtain, the better their chances at success.
There is a problem: Germany has some of the toughest privacy laws on earth. Rocked by purges during the Second World War, then under the notorious East German secret police, the Stasi, Germans now use social media in vanishing numbers compared to their European neighbors. Under 40% use Facebook, and just 17% are on Twitter. Angela Merkel, the country’s leader, doesn’t even have a Twitter handle.
The country’s laws allow Merkel’s government to compel tech companies to share individuals’ location data in the name of public security. But mass tracking of people strays into a legal gray area. German news channels have been abuzz with discussion over how far, in the pursuit of the nation’s health, is too far.
With one of the world’s best tech industries, a growing crisis and tough laws, expect Germany’s fight against the Coronavirus to take on a multidimensional aspect in the coming days.