Chapter Seven: Surveillance and Privacy

Sabina Leonelli, “Scientific Research and Big Data,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Leonelli provides an overview of the ethical issues involved in data science, many of which are highlighted by the technology-driven approaches to COVID-19 contact tracing.

Elizabeth A. Buchanan and Michael Zimmer, “Internet Research Ethics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Buchanan and Zimmer identify and describe the key ethical issues in internet research, which parallel some of the ethical issues involved in digital contact tracing: privacy, informed consent, the uses of big data, and industry involvement.

Zeynep Tufekci (4 September 2020), “The Pandemic Is No Excuse to Surveil Students,” The Atlantic
Student athletes often face surveillance by the universities they attend. Tufekci notices an extension of this trend during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many universities now require that all students use mandatory tracking apps. Tufekci worries this practice might undermine public health measures because public health rests on trust and cooperation whereas surveillance undermines trust.

Natalie Kofler and Françoise Baylis (21 May 2020), “Ten Reasons Why Immunity Passports Are a Bad Idea,” Nature
“Immunity passports” are documents (paper or electronic) that would record whether someone has tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies (presumably indicating that they have survived the disease). Kofler and Baylis argue that these passports would create new social divisions and forms of discrimination, leading to unequal access to health care and increased social stratification. The passports could represent a threat to public health if they incentivize people to deliberately seek out infection in order to become “immune” and have their liberties restored. Instead of immunity passports, Kofler and Baylis hold that we should rely on the value of solidarity and the long-tested “test, trace, and isolate” method of public health containment.

Allan Richarz (4 February 2021) “Mandating ‘Vaccination Passports’ for Access to Services, Travel Would be a Violation of Civil Liberties,” CBC News.
Richarz argues that requiring vaccination passports would exacerbate inequities both within and among countries. On a global scale, inequities would result from the fact that wealthy countries have bought up the early supplies of available vaccines, making them initially unavailable to those in lower-income countries. Furthermore, the use of vaccination passports may encourage wealthy people to attempt to “jump the queue” in order to resume life as normal.

Jonathan Shaw (3 August 2020), “Failing the Coronavirus-Testing Test,” Harvard Magazine
Current COVID-19 tests are very accurate and good for diagnosing a patient, especially after they begin to show symptoms and present to a health care professional for testing. However, the current tests are not very good at containing the COVID-19 outbreak. Shaw interviews Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology, who argues that we ought to use less sensitive tests more frequently to better contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ali Alkhatib (1 May 2020), “We Need to Talk about Digital Contact Tracing” [blog]
Alkhatib writes specifically about the proposal by Apple and Google to allow anonymous contact tracing. He explains how the program would work and then criticizes it for amassing systematically biased data samples. The system would require relatively new smartphones, meaning that several billion people wouldn’t be able to participate. The data would be systematically biased by undercounting (or even excluding) people living in poverty, children, elderly people, and people experiencing homelessness. Alkhatib argues instead that we focus on PPE, testing, human contact tracing, and changes to health care and labour systems to allow paid sick leave and access to medical care.

Susan Landau (25 March 2020), “Location Surveillance to Counter COVID-19: Efficacy is What Matters,” Lawfare [blog]
Landau argues that for any measure infringing on privacy and civil liberties to be morally justified, there must be strong evidence that it is effective. She argues that tracing by use of GPS or by cellular coordinates wouldn’t likely be effective due to technical limitations. Landau notes that South Korea’s much-praised approach to tracing has been effective only by combining cellphone data with other information such as data on medical and pharmacy visits, credit card transactions, and CCTV videos.

G. Owen Schaefer and Angela Ballantyne (4 May 2020), “Downloading COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Is A Moral Obligation,” Journal of Medical Ethics [blog]
Schaefer and Ballantyne argue that there are moral obligations to download and use tracing apps during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite privacy concerns and even if there is only a modest effect in reducing spread. They believe that these apps will help accelerate contact tracing, which will allow individuals to self-isolate more quickly. They argue that the risks of data breaches are minor compared to the potential benefits. Further, they hold that a requirement of reciprocity toward the risks and sacrifices of healthcare professionals and other essential workers entails that the obligation to use such apps is even stronger.

Luigi Roggia (23 March 2020), “A Data Scientist Ethics about COVID-19,” LinkedIn [blog]
Roggia notes that there is no code of ethics for data science. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many data scientists have created models and data analysis that lack proper citations and fail to specify their sources of information. Roggia worries that the abundance of conflicting models will cause confusion and a loss of public trust.