Can We Ensure Fairness with Digital Contact Tracing?

by Fabio Tollon

COVID-19 has forced populations into lockdown, seen the restriction of rights, and caused widespread economic, social, and psychological harm. With only 11 countries having no confirmed cases of COVID-19 (as of this writing), we are globally beyond strategies that aim solely at containment. Most resources are now being directed at mitigation strategies. That is, strategies that aim to curtail how quickly the virus spreads. These strategies (such as physical and social distancing, increased hand-washing, mask-wearing, and proper respiratory etiquette) have been effective in delaying infection rates, and therefore reducing strain on healthcare workers and facilities. There has also been a wave of techno-solutionism (not unusual in times of crisis), which often comes with the unjustified belief that technological solutions provide the best (and sometimes only) ways to deal with the crisis in question.

Such perspectives, in the words of Michael Klenk, ask “what technology”, instead of asking “why technology”, and therefore run the risk of creating more problems than they solve. Klenk argues that such a focus is too narrow: it starts with the presumption that there should be technological solutions to our problems, and then stamps some ethics on afterwards to try and constrain problematic developments that may occur with the technology. This gets things exactly backwards. What we should instead be doing is asking whether we need a given technology, and then proceed from there. It is with this critical perspective in mind that I will investigate a new technological kid on the block: digital contact tracing. Basically, its implementation involves installing a smartphone app that, via Bluetooth, registers and stores the individual’s contacts. Should a user become infected, they can update their app with this information, which will then automatically ping all of their registered contacts. While much attention has been focused on privacy and trust concerns, this will not be my focus (see here for a good example of an analysis that looks specifically at these factors, drawn up by the team at Ethical Intelligence). I will instead focus on the question of whether digital contact tracing is fair. Read more »

Plague Echoes

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is the men who pass away…” —Albert Camus (The Plague)

Photo by Yaseen Hashmi

“So long as each individual doctor had come across only two or three cases, no one had thought of taking action. But it was merely a matter of adding up the figures and, once this had been done, the total was startling. In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in.” (The Plague, Page 35)

Death by pneumonia, and then another, and another, advancing in only days to large populations— caused by one of those crown-wearing microbes, a Coronavirus, deadly, beautiful under the microscope. They named it Novel Coronavirus. Once unsheathed, it leapt from animal to human, one town to another, then between land and sea borders. The first confirmed case in the United States was recorded on January 20, 2020. Only 20 days ago, we had wished each other peace and a vision clear as 20/20. But is a year of numbers and blurred vision. The Grand Princess sailed with 2000-plus, 21 infected by the time she passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. By March 18th there were 7,769 cases. Ten days later, on March 28th, they had risen to 116,505.

“The evening papers that day took up the matter and inquired whether or not the city fathers were going to take steps, and what emergency measures were contemplated, to abate this particularly disgusting nuisance. Actually the municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all, but now a meeting was convened to discuss the situation.” (The Plague, Page 15)

There was a memo early on, wasn’t there? One of them asked.
The man had no answers, only mirrors and insults inside. He spoke as if swirling in a perpetual drumroll. He appeared every day for the press conference, knotting a bright tie in a different color, head skewed; most days he favored red— red and oversized, as he snarled or shrugged at a question, red as he made his pounce. Read more »