By Charlotte Fleischmann, BA
The following thoughts on contact tracing apps try to give a new perspective on their purpose. They question the trend in society not wanting to share private information with the government while sharing it at the same time publicly through social media.
The majority of people criticising contact tracing apps do not want to share private information, or in concrete words do not want to share their location and by consequence their daily routines or habits.
This is understandable in a way: location or spatial data provides really delicate information and various types of knowledge can be derived from one’s location. From movements, we know where a person works, lives, shops, and visits friends. We are able to learn a lot about a person but also about communities by “just” having knowledge about their location.
If you now think: “Well, I will never gonna get this tracing app on my phone”, I invite you to remember what other sources of information as delicate as spatial data within a tracing app is publicly accessible of you. Maybe you have a Facebook-, Instagram-, Google Mail- or WhatsApp- or LinkedIn-Account. Social Media and so many other sources are publicly providing a mass of spatial-, and other types of data from the majority of people.
If it is not from social media, there are still other ways to find aggregated information such as official statistical data from governments, data from insurance companies, or data from news media.
These channels of data often do not provide personalized information about people. But we should not forget the bigger picture of data analysis. The objective of data analysis is finding meaning and correlation in incredibly huge amounts of data. Findings derived from so called big data are not about that one certain person, it is about finding patterns in an aggregate of “digitalized reality” concerning activities, opinions, circumstances, and habits of people. I am not saying that personalized data is not playing a huge role in data analysis, but this is mostly the case when an analysis has the purpose to explain a company what advertisement best fits for a certain person. To make it more concrete: personalized information is mostly used from companies for the purpose of marketing.
Let us also remember that what is now called data is digitalized information. Information has always been important for societies and will always be. The main difference between then and now is the capacities of storage, the amount of data and the speed in which data can be processed. Of course, these differences bring up new consequences for society, which should be considered, but still the principles of the impact of information and knowledge on society is as important as it has always been. As Francis Bacon once said: knowledge is power.
But back to the criticism of contact tracing Apps: not wanting to share spatial data, even if it is for the purpose of public health, illustrates that it is important for our society that personal data is not used without consent even if it is for a society’s own good.
Why is there a tendency to think that data will be used against us? And why do we fear this on the one hand, but on the other proudly share family photos on various social media platforms? This matter seems irrational for me and brings me to the conclusion that our global society is in need for an open discourse regarding the subject of data collection, analysis, and use. We need to inform ourselves, so that we do not start sticking to irrational fear, when it comes to the matter of data. But I also call upon institutions, NGOs, governments, organizations, and companies to speak openly about this subject and share aims and objectives concerning the matter of data analysis in a transparent and explicable manner.
If this will not soon be the case, stories like failed attempts to introduce a contact tracing app in order to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic will repeat over and over. We need to be clear about both sides of the coin: There are negative impacts in every innovation, in every new trend. But there are also good intentions, good reasons, and eventually good outcome from innovations if we are just able and ready to use it right. The good side of the coin cannot be realized, however, if we live in the bewildering situation of on the one hand sharing loads of data on social media and on the other being afraid of sharing data within an app that would help us to tackle the pandemic.
This blog-post does not only want to question the view on data related matters in our society. It also wants to take an effort in informing about the potential of contact tracing apps for the solution of this crisis in line with this recent statement by the WHO:
“COVID-19 has heavily emphasized how contact tracing is crucial for managing outbreaks, and as part of the strategy for adjusting, and eventually lifting, lockdowns and other stringent public health and social measures. As the pandemic develops further, it will be a core measure to manage further waves of infection”
The sources below contain further articles about functioning, purpose, objectives, outcome of contact tracing apps and about the on-going debate. I hope this blog post is providing an incentive to read and think further about data analysis in relation to contact tracing apps, but also in terms of other topics.
Budd, J., Miller, B.S., Manning, E.M. et al. Digital technologies in the public-health response to COVID19. Nat Med 26, 1183–1192 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-1011-4
Ienca, M., Vayena, E. On the responsible use of digital data to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat Med 26, 463–464 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-0832-5
World Health Organization. Public health surveillance for COVID-19 Interim guidance (2020)
World Health Organization. Online global consultation on contact tracing for COVID-19 (2020). COVID-19: Surveilllance, case investigation and epidemiological protocols
Siffels, L.E. Beyond privacy vs. health: a justification analysis of the contact-tracing apps debate in the Netherlands. Ethics Inf Technol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-020-09555-x
Lanzing, M. Contact tracing apps: an ethical roadmap. Ethics and Inf Technol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-020-09548-w