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Beware of Side Effects: Digital Contact Tracing During the Current Pandemic

By Julie Paquette, professor in the School of Ethics, Social Justice and Public Service

If the trend continues, the Government of Canada will approve, as some provinces have already done, the use of a digital contact tracing app related to the pandemic. This app will make it easier to trace the contacts of a person carrying the COVID-19 virus – at best, to suggest that a person do a screening test, or to send an alert recommending that a person self-isolate for 14 days.

In my opinion, there are many disadvantages to this approach. Here I highlight three of them:

  1. Effectiveness. This technology must be used by around 60% of the population to be effective (are they contemplating forcing us to use it?). Technical problems have already been raised (especially the need, on some phones, for the screen to be unlocked for the app to work). What is more, this technology risks creating a false sense of security that will make us forget to keep doing the basic measures: handwashing, physical distancing, etc. The promise of “regaining peace of mind” is risky. And all of this will have little or no effect on our seniors who are already isolated (sometimes in long-term care homes)…
  2. Protection of privacy. Even if the app uses Bluetooth technology and intends to destroy the data it has collected after a certain period of time, it remains vulnerable to computer hackers. But that’s not all. Some suggest asking users a series of questions about their health to better target people who are at risk of experiencing problems, both physical and psychological. Once these data are compiled, what assurance will we have that they will not be used for other purposes? In Alberta, for example, you must be 14 or older to download this app. That means data will be collected on minors.
  3. Side effects. Even if this technology were effective, protection of privacy were assured and we did our best to address the inequalities (such as prohibiting immunity passports, making Bluetooth devices to be distributed free of charge, and ensuring informed consent) – even if all these criteria were met (which seems highly unlikely), there would still be reason for concern, due to side effects that the app could cause: desire for surveillance (vertical and horizontal), desire for tracking and normalization of this new reality.

Seeing technology as the solution has its limits, and the urgency of the situation does not justify deferring certain questions, for it will then be too late. Dismissing this legitimate questioning stems from wilful blindness. In our haste, we risk creating practices whose effects will be permanent. And we know that a state of emergency always leaves traces in a repressive state apparatus; these are the traces that worry me the most.

Let me repeat: contact tracing – AI or not – is not a solution to the public health crisis.

About the Author

Julie Paquette is a signatory of the Ligue des droits et libertés’ declaration « Le traçage numérique n’est pas un remède à la crise de santé publique » (Digital contact tracing is not a remedy for the public health crisis).

She is a professor in the School of Ethics, Social Justice and Public Service. Since 2015 she has taught the master’s-level course Éthique, information et vie privée (Ethics, information and privacy). Since 2019, she has coordinated the École d’hiver en éthique sur les algorithmes et les Big Data dans le secteur public (Winter school in ethics on algorithms and big data in the public sector). She is co-editor, with Émilie Dionne, of a special issue of Global Media Journal on algorithmic mediation and big data in the digital era (to be published in summer 2020) and is the author of the article « De la société disciplinaire à la société algorithmique : considérations éthiques autour de l’enjeu du Big Data » (From a disciplinary society to an algorithmic society: ethical considerations around the issue of big data), published in French Journal For Media Research, no. 9 (2018).


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