COVID-19 has seen governments and tech working together to combat its spread, leading to the implementation of increasingly invasive surveillance measures. This has given rise to the illusion that one cannot have both privacy and health at once. This is a false choice.
This trade-off illusion must be challenged. But the implementation of emergency measures across the globe such as digital contact tracing, mobile phone tracking and even robot police dogs continues to raise ethical concerns. While these surveillance measures have great potential to help curb the spread of COVID-19, they are far from perfect, and continue to raise concerns over privacy, autonomy, and dignity. Companies and policy makers must turn to the stakeholders within their communities to develop tech that is locally acceptable- or risk losing public trust.
While the social distance enforcing dog ‘droids roaming Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park may seem like a dystopian fantasy to many in the West, they are not the first COVID-19 tech solution to be pioneered by Singapore. They were one of the first countries to implement digital contact tracing with their TraceTogether app launched in March- the likes of which are now being developed across the globe.
Digital contact tracing is a good focal point for the discussion surrounding public surveillance, for if the intended ends are achieved, it is easy to see how they might justify the means.
DCT makes sense, but how effective really is it?
The idea is simple. A user reports positive on the app if they become sick, and other users who have recently been in contact with them will receive a notification that they have been exposed to COVID-19.
The UK’s NHS is developing its own app, while Australia recently released COVIDSafe, it’s version of TraceTogether. Unlike China’s Health Code service, which freely shares the GPS location of its users with authorities, apps like TraceTogether and COVIDSafe do not require location sharing, instead relying on Bluetooth proximity to deduce when an infected person has been within range. Users are kept anonymous through an encrypted ID and safeguarded by the systematic destruction of data (usually after a period of 14-21 days).
Perhaps more so than other public surveillance initiatives, these apps have the potential to drastically curb the spread of infection as they alleviate the laborious task of manual tracing. But how reliable are they?
There is no guarantee that someone who self-reports positive on an app actually has the virus. Those who receive a notification that they have been in contact with a sick person have no idea who this person is and whether their encounter has credibly left them at risk of infection. Some will self-isolate, while other well people may feel compelled to contact emergency services, putting more pressure on systems already under massive strain. The potential for false positives may lead others to ignore such notifications altogether, making the app redundant.
False negatives are just as problematic; Bluetooth limitations mean accuracy is not guaranteed. This could create a false sense of security leading to complacency. DCT users also require a smart phone with internet access, creating a distribution challenge with socioeconomic implications.
Furthermore, the trustworthiness of those charged with handling these intimate datasets is up for debate, as tech giants and government bodies alike have been known to break their own privacy policies in the past (Google’s Deepmind scandal being just one example- and not the worst). The difficulties associated with running decentralised tech systems alone mean that the temptation to centralise would be great, and Apple and Google’s efforts to predispose all of their devices to DCT scales the associated risks enormously. Also worth noting is the efficacy of such a system to cause widespread panic if masses of users suddenly report positive. This makes them excellent targets for malicious hackers.
Governments are aware of these concerns, which is why these apps are voluntary. Yet as it stands, simply not enough people are opting in for them to be effective. DCT requires 60% of a population to participate for it to work, but as of now, only 20% of the Singaporean population have opted in. This means that unless these apps are made mandatory, manual contact tracing is likely to remain the predominant method.
Dr Chia Shi-Lu, chairman of the Singapore Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, recently called for TraceTogether to become mandatory for the entire population. This negates previous assurances that the app was on a strictly opt-in basis, which may lead to further reluctance for public participation in similar initiatives across the globe.
Engaging with Communities Helps Shape Better Informed Decisions
How can developers and policy makers implement tech that people can trust?
The discussion surrounding the widespread implications of COVID-19 must aim to address public concerns and engage with a rich variety of researchers and ethicists as well as stakeholders within the community. In doing so, responsible technologies and policies may be developed which encompass the values of those affected and respect personal and public boundaries.
The sense of collective responsibility within communities has been demonstrated as people have been required to act in unison to combat the challenges at hand. Almost everyone has willingly sacrificing personal liberties to remain at home or placed their own selves at risk by travelling to work every day and providing humanities essential services.
The public have demonstrated their ability to use their judgment and common sense in face of COVID-19 and should be trusted to do so moving forwards. Increasingly invasive policing and surveillance measures risk building resentment towards authority. This threatens the inter-reliance which binds communities and encourages this kind of positive collaboration.
As expounded by global health emergency expert Katherine Wright, an environment of trust, which in turn encourages public compliance, can only be achieved through a regulatory response that is locally acceptable. This requires the appropriate assessment and incorporation of the values of those affected by given measures. When stakeholder’s concerns are sidelined in the development of solutions, effectiveness becomes compromised as people’s willingness to comply diminishes.
The Time to Set an Ethical Precedent is Now
As we move through uncertain terrain it is difficult to imagine what circumstances will develop in the coming months and the implications they may bring, making it essential that we set an ethical precedent now. More invasive tech solutions do present public health benefits, but they are not infallible, and the trade-off is personal privacy, autonomy and dignity.
While the current crisis may seem to justify measures which infringe upon our personal and public boundaries, it also presents an opportunity to identify these core values not merely as a luxury afforded in times of normality, but as key components of the framework within which these policies are formed.