Kannen Ramsamy is a public affairs professional, and an MSc Public Policy student at the University of Bath.
COVID-19 has spurred an unprecedented wave of biotechnology innovation. One of the most significant developments in this space has been the announcement of a contact-tracing platform, developed through a rare partnership between tech giants Google and Apple. The first phase of the platform is expected to launch next month and with governments taking a front and centre role in its deployment, the new system will pose a new set of challenges for public policy.
Contact-tracing essentially involves preventing people infected with a disease from being exposed to others and infecting them too. It holds promise for managing COVID-19 and has been used effectively in countries including South Korea and Taiwan.
The platform intends to support this process on a mass-scale by alerting people via their phone when they are close to infected individuals and if they’ve been exposed to novel coronavirus. Using a Bluetooth signal the user’s phone will send out a unique code derived from that particular phone’s ID. Other phones that are within range and receive the code will store its data, building up a log of interactions. Those who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus will have their unique code hold this piece of information and so a phone will be able to scan its log of interactions to determine whether its user has come into close proximity with anyone infected. It is expected that those who have been exposed to the virus can then self-quarantine to halt any further spread.
The potential of this kind of platform in containing COVID-19, particularly when delivered at the scale that a collaboration between Google and Apple can offer, is fairly clear. With an estimated 3 billion people using Google’s Android and Apple Inc’s iOS, it could push the medical practice of contact-tracing to a new level.
However a contact-tracing programme of this magnitude naturally raises alarm bells around privacy issues and the expansion of digital surveillance technology in general, especially since people who have the disease will need to enter their health information into the platform. Anticipating these concerns, Google and Apple have taken a number of steps to protect user privacy. The platform doesn’t log your location in the way a GPS system does and will share data through an anonymous identification key in order to help maintain personal anonymity. It will also run as a voluntary opt-in network instead of being compulsory. These are welcome processes but we know that the complexity and scope of this programme means that it will take time to understand and manage any consequences that might emerge from it.
The programme won’t create a situation however, of governments needing to play catch-up with the industry, as has been the case in recent times with regulators attempting to clamp down on intrusive forms of digital surveillance. This is because the platform is fundamentally a public health management tool, that requires governments to make decisions on how exactly they would like to implement and utilise it. Public health and transport authorities will ultimately have a key part to play in administering the platform and deciding how its real-world delivery actually plays out within a given area. In this scenario therefore, public bodies function as important players alongside Google and Apple, with a high degree of influence in the operation of this medical surveillance programme from development through to deployment.
This raises important considerations for public policy. How much data will these bodies want to collect? How will their partnership with Google and Apple take shape? To what extent will they use information from the platform as a means of mobility control? It may be the case that these public bodies allow people to generally make their own decisions on how to move around based on the information from the platform. On the other hand it could be used more authoritatively, as a method of policed mobility management to help reduce the spread of the virus. Most current forms of direct and visible governmental mobility control exist through physical barriers such as security personnel, fences and walls or paper-based devices such as passports, tickets and cards. We are now likely to experience the first significant iteration of mass-mobility digital governance.
So while the contact-tracing platform holds potential for combatting the pandemic and stands as an impressive piece of innovation, the underlying ethical foundation of how it should be used and rolled-out by organisations has yet to be formed. It is also well known that these technological shifts often set a precedent for further expansion and variation. It is crucial therefore that accountability is integrated into the system’s development and evolution. We should also consistently assess its actual efficacy and measure up the benefits we are gaining against whatever social or material costs are borne to sustain its use.
COVID-19 and the emergence of this major public-private programme has added a new dynamic to the growth of digital technology and its relationship with governance and policy. The earlier that the public, policymakers, researchers and NGOs mobilise to try and navigate this relationship, the sooner we can try to ensure that the platform is being used in not only the most effective but also the least hazardous way possible.
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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.