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Ethical guidelines for COVID-19 tracing apps

Uploaded by RRI Tools on 24 June 2020

Ethical guidelines for COVID-19 tracing apps. Jessica Morley, Josh Cowls, Mariarosaria Taddeo & Luciano Floridi. Nature comments. May 2020.

Protect privacy, equality and fairness in digital contact tracing with these key questions

Technologies to rapidly alert people when they have been in contact with someone carrying the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 are part of a strategy to bring the pandemic under control. Currently, at least 47 contact-tracing apps are available globally (see They are already in use in Australia, South Korea and Singapore, for instance. And many other governments are testing or considering them.

Here we set out 16 questions to assess whether — and to what extent — a contact-tracing app is ethically justifiable. These questions could assist governments, public-health agencies and providers to develop ethical apps — they have already informed developments in France, Italy and the United Kingdom. They will also help watchdogs and others to scrutinize such technologies.

What do COVID-19 contact-tracing apps do? Running on a mobile phone, they inform people that they have spent time near someone with the virus. The contacts should then respond according to local rules, for example by isolating themselves. Prompt alerts are key because the incubation time of the virus is up to two weeks

These digital interventions come at a price. Collecting sensitive personal data potentially threatens privacy, equality and fairness. Even if COVID-19 apps are temporary, rapidly rolling out tracing technologies runs the risk of creating permanent, vulnerable records of people’s health, movements and social interactions, over which they have little control.

More ethical oversight is essential. So far, such concerns have focused on rights to privacy (see Some governments have pledged to protect data privacy (see Apple and Google are developing a common interface to support apps that do not require central data storage (see Nature; 2020). However, other ethical and social considerations must not be cast aside in the rush to quell the pandemic.

For instance, contact-tracing apps should be available and accessible to anyone, irrespective of the technology needed or their level of digital literacy. Yet many apps work only with certain phones. Australia, for example, has no plans to make its app work with phones that use software older than Apple’s iOS 10 or Android 6.0. In the United Kingdom, around one-fifth of adults do not use a smartphone, and so might be excluded from a digital contact-tracing programme.

Rolling out an app without considering its wide ethical and social implications can be dangerous, costly and useless. For example, Bluetooth signals that show the proximity of two individuals’ mobile phones are not a certain indicator of infection risk — two people might be in the same space but physically separated, for example, by a wall. A high level of false positives from such an app (for instance, as a result of self-reporting) could lead to unjustified panic. And minimal protections against false negatives (people not using the app to report that they are unwell) could spur a false sense of safety in others and increase the risk of infection.

The public might reject apps that breach principles of privacy, equality and fairness. This would frustrate the efforts and waste the resources being invested in developing and deploying such technology. Lack of consideration of ethics could erode trust in the government and public-health services — as happened last month, when the Norwegian Data Protection Authority accused the Norwegian Institute of Public Health of failing to carry out a proper risk assessment of its contact-tracing app, Smittestopp.








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