COVID-19 shows that digital ethics policies can worsen the negative effects they seek to prevent

A mother and daughter holding and using a smartphone outdoors in India

In May, India’s federal government passed a law that criminalized 110 million customers of the country’s most popular wireless provider and smartphone manufacturer.

A month before, the government launched Aarogya Setu, a mobile app for contact tracing that uses Bluetooth and GPS data to warn users if they’ve encountered someone that is infected with COVID-19. Despite criticisms of the app’s design for data collection and the implications of creating a surveillance mechanism for the state, the government required that all individuals in the areas with the worst outbreaks of the virus install the app. Not having it on your phone became a criminal offence overnight. Yet only 25 percent of India’s population had the means to install the mobile app. The app was only available for Android and iOS, not for the Jio smartphones used by one-third of the customers of Reliance Jio, India’s most popular wireless carrier.

Protest material against the compulsory use of the Aarogya Setu App in India
New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) challenged a law that made it a criminal offence to not have a mobile app installed and won. (Image courtesy IFF).

Thankfully, the law was short-lived. After 45 organizations joined the Internet Freedom Foundation’s joint representation to the Prime Minister’s Office and made a plea to the country’s high court, the law was changed. Now, Indians are only asked to install the app on a best-effort voluntary basis and there is no threat of criminal prosecution.

With COVID-19’s rapid spread around the world, many are calling for technologies that could help in the fight against it. Governments and industry are sometimes applying the Silicon Valley mentality of “move fast and break things” in building so-called solutions, and as seen in India, the effects on liberty can be severe. These technologies may be inspired by a desire to protect health, but many of them fall short of meeting philosopher John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian principle. 

Mill’s ethical theory states that outcomes are more important than intent, and that the outcome that does the least amount of harm to the least amount of people is always the most desirable. Concerned that new tech solutions are falling short of that during the pandemic, several industry groups have released new ethical guidelines to help steer firms in the right direction. Those groups include the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) blockchain council, and the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA). 

Immunity passports proposed without knowing if COVID-19 immunity is possible

With smartphones playing a central role in many of the new technologies suggested in response to COVID-19, telecommunications firms have a vital role to play in being involved in the ethical discussion, says Chris Parsons, the managing director of the Telecom Transparency Report at the University of Toronto.  “But not in the way you think,” he says. “We have to consider who does this privilege include and who does it exclude? What privileges does it reinforce?”

In addition to contact tracing mobile apps, a new type of digital identity certificate that individuals would store on their smartphones is in development. The COVID-19 Credentials Initiative is a collaboration of more than 100 organizations working towards an “immunity passport” that could be used to prove some level of immunity to the novel coronavirus and therefore allow higher levels of participation in everyday life. 

This digital identity certificate is being developed on the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Verified Credentials standard, which is based on blockchain. In Estonia, an immunity passport pilot project was launched in late May. In Pakistan, Vaccify plans to launch an open source mobile for vaccine credentials in the last quarter of 2020. Other projects include SMART Health Cards Framework,  with significant contributions from Microsoft Health’s Chief Architect.

These efforts raise concerns, says Dwayne Winseck, director of the Canadian Media Concentration Project at Carleton University. “We have a technological solution to a public health problem,” he says. “That plays into the problems we have with technology having god-like powers.” 

The problem is that the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning against the deployment of immunity passports. Its official position is that we don’t know enough about COVID-19 to even determine if immunity is possible. WHO first issued its position in April and reiterated it is still the case in a Sept. 16 press conference. Tests to detect the antibodies are inaccurate, and there is a lack of evidence about whether reinfection is possible. A vaccine is at least months away from being ready for market, and there’s no guarantee it will work.

“I’d put dollars to donuts that those who are the most privileged will get the immunity passports,” Parsons says. “We’ll only give these to the vulnerable when we want them to do jobs that no one else wants to do.” 

To avoid that dystopian outcome, Parsons says telecommunications firms should be making efforts to include vulnerable groups in the discussion around any technologies like immunity passports. Asking for feedback for black or indigenous people that also identify as LGBTQ and are involved with the AIDS movement would be an ideal strategy, he says. They have experience being treated as abnormal, experience with the state exerting power over them, and experience in being discriminated against because of health. 

“That’s how you build an equitable response,” Parsons says. “Even if you don’t care about that, you’ll be tapping into an important volume of knowledge about stopping the spread of COVID-19 now and in the future waves of the disease.” 

Fear mongering ads lead to calls for ethics in advertising

Like the WEF, the WFA saw some worrisome trends in its industry as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. In February, Facebook temporarily banned all ads relating to COVID-19 because there were too many false claims being made. As worried consumers took to the internet to buy up hand sanitizer and face masks, opportunists gouged them with high prices. 

an infographic showing the proportion of CMOs that consider data ethics to be important
According to a poll conducted by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), chief marketing officers feel data ethics are important. (Image provided by WFA.)

Despite Facebook’s decision to block the ads for a time, Winseck doesn’t believe that it’s the place of telecom providers to play the role of gatekeeper when it comes to the ads showing up on mobile devices.

“They already play that role in respect to spam and they do that under specific legislated authority,” he says. “The ability to impose or limit or block content should be very limited.”

Telcos sell advertising and seek to compete with Facebook and Google by using customer data to target them with relevant ads. Sometimes data troves are so attractive that they drive acquisitions, as Winseck says is the case in U.S. carrier Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo and its subsidiary Tumblr. Collecting more data about their customers leads to a better understanding of their behaviours, which are useful in the effort to reach the right person at the right time with the right ad.

The WFA principles for data ethics are built around four pillars: respect, fairness, accountability, and transparency. The report recommends actions that advertisers can take to enact the ethics. But without a regulatory body holding advertisers to account, Parsons is skeptical that they will be adopted.

“Marketers often put forward nice words and principles, but then seek to undercut them in every possible forum,” he says. “Fairness and transparency are wonderful words. I applaud them for standing up and being beacons in a very dark industry.” 

COVID-19 has changed society just as fast as the virus has spread. As governments and industry players seek solutions to address the health risks at hand, it will be natural they turn to technology. Hopefully, when they build those new solutions, they’ll take the ethical principles crafted by organizations like the WEF or WFA seriously. Or else good intentions to solve a health problem could pave the way for a crisis of liberty. 

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