Ethical issues central to digital contact tracing
10 June 2020
Digital contact tracing solutions for Covid-19 must ensure that legitimate ethical concerns have been identified and addressed, says Professor Tim Dare from the University of Auckland.
An ethics expert in the Faculty of Arts, Professor Dare works with the government as a data ethics adviser and contributed ethical expertise to a working paper recently released by the Centre for Social Data Analytics (Auckland University of Technology) and the Institute for Social Science Research (The University of Queensland).
Exceptionally rapid response and high uptake rates are the key elements to making any digital contact tracing useful, the paper concludes, but these things can only be achieved by dealing with the ethical issues first, says Professor Dare.
“The use of digital contact tracing is often initially greeted with concern, but the ethical justification of the app rests upon its capacity to deliver significant benefits to communities and individuals in ways which respect legitimate concerns.
“These are things like consent, the security and use of information, the preservation of a role for human judgement, and the possibility that the app will exacerbate existing social inequalities," he says.
He says some countries have introduced digital tracing which doesn’t require citizen consent and also provides geo-location information, however this paper is about technology which uses low-energy Bluetooth technology and requires user consent through the downloading of an app onto their smart phone
“Avoiding geo-location data protects privacy and requiring consent respects individual liberty,” he says.
The ethical justification of the app rests upon its capacity to deliver significant benefits to communities and individuals in ways which respect legitimate concerns.
Because users have limited ability to judge the value of contact tracing tools, the paper says a high level of trust is needed to achieve high uptake levels, so governments which offer an evaluation that will allow people to judge the impact of a tool will increase trust as well as uptake.
And as speed is the most crucial element for controlling the spread of Covid-19, the paper also recommends solutions that offer instant notifications if someone has been in the promixity of an infected person. It says there should also be the opportunity for follow up by public health officers to make sure those who need to self-isolate have actually done so.
Digital solutions only start adding significant value (by taking work off manual contact tracers) at take-up levels above 60 percent, suggesting that targets like 40 percent (adopted by Australia) are simply too low to be useful, the paper says.
Its authors hope to provide useful information and guidance for policymakers who have to make important decisions about which digital contact-tracing options to choose, both in the context of Covid-19 and for any future public health threat.
Digital Contact Tracing for COVID-19: A Primer for Policymakers was published as a working paper on 2 June 2020. It was written by: Rhema Vaithianathan, Matthew Ryan, Nina Anchugina, Linda Selvey, Tim Dare and Anna Brown.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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