At least 47 contact tracing apps are available globally. They are already in use in Singapore, South Korea, and Australia. There are also many other governments are testing or considering them. However watchdogs and others public security experts continue to scrutinize these apps and ask if there indeed should be ethical guidelines for contact tracing apps.
Most contact tracing apps (with the exception of CLEARed’s Platform) are built utilizing GPS and Bluetooth technology and run on a mobile phone and track individuals 24 hours a day. The purpose of the tracking feature is to help inform people if they have spent time near someone with the virus. In an ideal world, this model seems sound but because GPS and Bluetooth accuracy can present false positives this model is proving to be more troublesome than helpful. Combine the lack of accuracy with low confidence from user in their ability to keep their data private and secure, the current set of apps are likely to fail at great cost. The current set of digital contact tracing apps (even those built on the Apple and Google collaborative platform) will come at a price. These apps are asking users for permission to collect sensitive personal data that could threaten privacy. Even if contact tracing apps are temporary, rapidly rolling them come with the risk of creating vulnerable records of people’s health, movements and social interactions, over which they have little control once Big Tech and others gather that data. It will be almost impossible for citizens to track or hold accountable those that collect their data and vow to keep it safe and secure.
If countries and states continue to roll out apps without considering their wide ethical and social implications what results can be dangerous, costly and useless. Let’s take a look at Bluetooth signals. Studies are showing that the proximity of two individuals’ mobile phones are not a certain indicator of infection risk. These same two people might be in the same space but physically separated, for example, by a wall, a car window or masks and other protective gear. These types of false positives could lead to unjustified panic when someone self reports through the app. There are also minimal protections against false negatives (people not using the app to report that they are unwell) could spur a false sense of safety in certain areas and increase lead to the risk of infection. This brings up another issue of app behavior, motivation to use and other factors that current app developers are not taking into account for these apps to be successful (read our other blogs to better understand Risk vs Reward in app design and successful DAU).
If the current apps being developed and vetted by governments are not designed with user privacy, motivation and behavior in mind, the public will most certainly reject these contact tracing apps as they will be seen as a possible breach of privacy and security with little reward to the user for taking the risk of downloading the app. This will lead to tremendous waste of the resources being invested in developing and deploying contact tracing apps today. A lack of consideration of ethics could erode trust in the government and public-health services as happened last month, when the North Dakota and South Dakota contact tracing apps was exposed as sharing user data with Google and other various advertising platforms.
In order for contact tracing apps to be ethical, they must abide by a few principles which include whether the app development and architecture is proportionate to the need. Meaning, in order to allow citizens to self report and a notify others of possible exposure, do we really need to monitor people while they are sleeping, bathing, using the restroom in their homes, mowing their lawns, or eating dinner with their family? The answer is no. So why are so many cities, states and countries rushing to adopt apps that track citizens 24/7?
Governments will not have a second chance to get a digital contact tracing program right and failure will lose the public’s trust for the foreseeable future. Governments and app developers have to make sure that contact tracing apps address the need that is present and not try to introduce monitoring software. They must take into account user need, design and app user behavior. Just because smart epidemiologists, government officials politicians think 24/7 tracking sound justifiable and that if they “build it they will come” is a satisfactory approach to getting contact tracing apps downloaded and used, doesn’t mean it will happen.
Simply rolling out a contact tracing app without ethical and privacy consideration is not acceptable. Even in a crisis, a ‘build it and they will come’ approach is dangerous when it goes wrong the long term damage will be irreparable.