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The Risks of Conceptualizing Data as a Silver Bullet in the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Anke Obendiek

№ 31/2021 from May 04, 2021

Anke Obendiek

Suggesting that wide-ranging access to personal data will fix the shortcomings in the liberal countries’ pandemic response has significant drawbacks. On the one hand, this idea risks playing into a corporate narrative that advocates technological responses to any social problem – despite limited success. On the other hand, it ignores that, as public actors choose to delegate their responsibilities to private tech companies, increased data access is likely to undermine accountability principles.

COVID-19 Screening Tool

COVID-19 Screening Tool
Image Credit: Brian McGowan (Unsplash)

The COVID-19 pandemic requires the balancing of political goals, including the risk of infection, high economic costs and the interference with fundamental rights, such as freedom of movement, and the protection of privacy and personal data. In a recent blog post, Jürgen Gerhards and Michael Zürn argue that countries in Western Europe and North America have so far failed to strike this balance. They suggest that liberal countries need to rethink their approach to the collection and use practices of digital data to curb the spread of the virus as effectively as, for example, China or Taiwan.

Tanja Börzel and Thomas Risse, as well as Eun-Jeung Lee, have already pointed to potential alternative explanations to the pandemic performance of those countries. Yet, it is worth unpacking this quite dominant narrative, also because this has significant implications for the liberal script. Two points are central here: the effectiveness of data use practices and the privatized character of this process.

First, it is essential not to be overly tempted by what Evgeny Morozov has called “solutionism” – essentially the idea that any complex societal or political problem may be resolved if we just find the right technological fix.[1] Even if the effects of this process are unclear, this kind of mindset creates significant demand for the accumulation of an ever-increasing amount of data. For example, knowledge acquired through data is often not universal, limiting insights on those subjects that do not conform to the characteristics of the normalized white male. When assuming that any problem can be tackled through quantification and a specific technological response, it is tempting to reframe any limitations to the effectiveness of technological solutions as a problem of data access. In this narrative, data protection is transformed into a mountain of absurd and overly zealous demands. In contrast, research suggests that the comprehensive nature of data protection legislation in Europe provides advantages, such as legal certainty, when compared to the piecemeal approach to data protection legislation in other jurisdictions. Instead, building up data protection as a strawman obscures more fundamental limitations of public capacity, including the lack of public funding for essential services and infrastructures, such as hospitals and medical professionals.

Second, and more importantly, the narrative tends to overlook the role of public actors as enabling rather than constraining private data access. Gerhards and Zürn rightly criticize the predominant model of privatized data use practices to demand increased public data control. More open data sharing and increased public capacity seem overdue, as governmental agencies have exposed their painful lack of digital competences and infrastructure, not least through their baffling reliance on fax machines. The public sphere has become subject to privatized rules and values, from the question of how to tackle disinformation to the dominance of single players in the underlying infrastructure. In Europe, part of the unease that results from the dominance of foreign private companies has contributed to a raising claim for “digital sovereignty”.

Yet, what these debates do not sufficiently recognize is that privatized data access is not accidental. Rather, it is a deliberate choice by public actors that delegate an ever-growing proportion of public responsibilities to private (tech) companies. Particularly the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic seem to have worked as a catalyst for such privatization processes. This included, for example, COVID testing or the development of contact tracing infrastructure, as well as digital solutions in higher education. Playing into the narrative of digital solutionism reinforces the perceived necessity of (private) technological intervention, as governments feel they lack expertise. Rather than strengthening public trust, the delegation of public responsibilities entrenches private values, which potentially undermines liberal principles, such as transparency, accountability, and democratic oversight in favor of big data promises.

The technology company Palantir, for example, criticized for its contested data processing in the context of intelligence, defense, and immigration, has been assigned a significant part of the monitoring of the pandemic and crisis response measures in the Netherlands. In December 2020, the UK National Health Service controversially awarded a £23.5 million contract to Palantir for the so-called “COVID-19 Datastore”, which also includes cooperation with the artificial intelligence company Faculty, the cloud company ANS, as well as consulting firms. The Greek government ended cooperation with Palantir after heavy criticism regarding the lack of transparency and the potential for data exploitation. These agreements have largely remained outside of wide public scrutiny or discussion.

In conclusion, rather than subscribing to the idea that increased access to personal data will fix our problems, we should focus on demanding accountability and oversight for existing and future data sharing agreements and foreground data quality. To govern the digital space effectively, this requires more foundational debates about the role of private gatekeepers and infrastructures, as well as their compatibility with core norms of liberal democracy.


Anke Obendiek is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for European Integration Research (EIF) at the University of Vienna. She recently completed her PhD on normative conflicts in data governance at the Hertie School and was affiliated with the Berlin Graduate School for Global and Transregional Studies. Her research focuses on the role of the EU in internet governance and the liberal order.

[1] See also Nachtwey, O. & Seidl, T. (2020). The Solutionist Ethic and the Spirit of Digital Capitalism. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/sgjzq.