Guest Post: Pandemic Ethics. Social Justice Demands Mass Surveillance: Social Distancing, Contact Tracing and COVID-19

Written by: Bryce Goodman

The spread of COVID-19 presents a number of ethical dilemmas. Should ventilators only be used to treat those who are most likely to recover from infection? How should violators of quarantine be punished? What is the right balance between protecting individual privacy and reducing the virus’ spread?

Most of the mitigation strategies pursued today (including in the US and UK) rely primarily on lock-downs or “social distancing” and not enough on contact tracing — the use of location data to identify who an infected individual may have come into contact with and infected. This balance prioritizes individual privacy above public health. But contact tracing will not only protect our overall welfare. It can also help address the disproportionately negative impact social distancing is having on our least well off.
Contact tracing “can achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” says a recent paper published in Science. “By targeting recommendations to only those at risk, epidemics could be contained without need for mass quarantines (‘lock-downs’) that are harmful to society.” Once someone has tested positive for a virus, we can use that person’s location history to deduce whom they may have “contacted” and infected. For example, we might find that 20 people were in close proximity and 15 have now tested positive for the virus. Contact tracing would allow us to identify and test the other 5 before they spread the virus further.
The success of contact tracing will largely depend on the accuracy and ubiquity of a widespread testing program. Evidence thus far suggests that countries with extensive testing and contact tracing are able to avoid or relax social distancing restrictions in favor of more targeted quarantines.


Much of the data required for contact tracing is already broadcast by mobile applications such as Google Maps and adware. This location information is already collected by “data brokers” who sell the data to advertisers. The practice forms a core part of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”: a market in which the commodity for sale is your personal information.

An example of contact tracing using existing mobile geolocation data.

During the present crisis, apparatus of surveillance capitalism should be co-opted by public health organizations for benevolent ends. “The terrifying surveillance infrastructure for [contact tracing] exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream,” writes privacy researcher Maciej Ceglowski. “Why not use it to save lives?”

Public health officials should automatically enroll everyone with a mobile phone in a contact tracing program, right now. We cannot be certain that contact tracing will work, but we can be fairly certain that anything short of an aggressive policy will fail.
Recall that the purpose is to identify who an infected individual came into contact with in the days leading up to their diagnosis. So the only feasible solutions will necessarily collect data from both the infected individual and everyone whom they may have come into contact with. If we limit our data collection only to those who have “opted-in” (like voluntary app-based approaches from Google and Apple and national programs in the US, UK and European Union), we may severely limit our ability to effectively track the virus and, in doing so, harm the very people whose privacy we intend to protect.

Moreover, none of this information needs to or should be made public — there is no reason to disclose the names of those who are infected, or their location history, provided we can directly message those who are or were in their proximity. Aggregate level data showing “hot spots” of activity can also be made public without releasing information about individuals.

However, when it comes to data collection, there may be a tension between the degree to which we keep data anonymous versus our ability to notify individuals we believe may be at risk. In other words, to fully de-identify data may mean we can no longer identify who is most at risk. Partial, voluntary, anonymized and incremental rollout of contact tracing, politically palatable though it may be, risks obviating many of the benefits that justify surveillance in the first place.

So why argue for contact tracing in the first place, if it so radically violates our privacy? Some may point to the overwhelming public health interest in identifying and isolated infected individuals, and using contact tracing as the most effective means of doing so. Their argument suggests that the public health benefit of the practice outweighs the potential harms to individual rights. This is a straightforward application of utilitarianism, the idea that the right action is that which maximizes overall wellbeing. It claims we are justified in violating the privacy rights of the few for the welfare of the many.

But there is another, more powerful reason for wanting to transition from social distancing towards contact tracing. Although the imperative to socially distance applies to everyone equally, the consequences of such a regime are unequally distributed. For those of us with job security and financial stability, it means isolation and inconvenience. For others who cannot work remotely, do not have paid sick leave, or do not have savings, it means destitution and despair. No amount of economic stimulus short of universal basic income will make a dent, and this is unlikely to be implemented in the near-term.

Moving from social distancing to contact tracing could allow millions to return to work. It could permit schools to reopen, which over 30 million children depend upon for meals. And it could allow for geographically targeted, appropriately scoped quarantines that minimize additional hardships for society’s most vulnerable communities.

It’s clear that in the absence of a vaccine, the only way to restrain the spread of coronavirus is through social distancing and contact tracing. They both carry costs: one disproportionately affects underserved communities, the other infringes upon privacy. But fairness demands that we end social distancing as soon as doing so won’t result in widespread resurgence of the virus. And the only way to do that is to implement an aggressive testing and contact tracing plan.

Ubiquitous surveillance, for any purpose, poses grave risks to a free and open society. These risks should be minimized as far as is possible, and good governance is absolutely critical to ensure we do not stumble into a surveillance state. But we must consider the full scope of what is at stake. Social justice depends on it.

Originally posted on Medium

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4 Responses to Guest Post: Pandemic Ethics. Social Justice Demands Mass Surveillance: Social Distancing, Contact Tracing and COVID-19

  • Ian says:

    To paraphrase an old quote; We already live in a surveillance state, get over it. Things like the transparent society are accepted, but interestingly a general acceptance of the term surveillance state or a constant state of surveillance continues as a widespread denial at variance with the situation. Individual privacy within U.K. society is/was argued as negatively arising out of common law but ineffectively continues because of positive regulation providing powers to more or less completely intrude as seen necessary. There have always been, and always will be arguments to collect/use personal data/information. With social benefits, the distance principle or automation often used as justification.

    An interesting contemporary privacy contrast in the U.K. when looking at the COVID-19 situation is the perception of social responsibility in promoting the gathering of contact tracing data; and how it was/is potentially socially disadvantageous for the general public to publicly wear protective masks in wide and general circumstances. One originates out of systems of control, the other from individual safety and feelings of a common social responsibility. Due to many peoples abilities to provide for their own masks I have ignored resourcing arguments here.

    • Jan says:

      No healthy person should be wearing any type of facial mask. And… you’ve never read George Orwell’s 19184 have you

  • Jan says:

    No justification for spying on the public… it’s not about public safety, it is about control. Get a Life

  • Johan Scheffer says:

    I can accept Bryce Goodman’s argument that social contact tracing should be implemented to promote social justice and safety. I also know that implementing social contact tracing compromises individual privacy. While data on any single person may be protected, operational data on how the technology itself works and the ways it can be used in the future may be owned or passed onto other private companies who supply the technology and who store the data. In exchange for agreeing to social contact tracing citizens have a right and a responsibility to ensure that laws are framed that ensure that all the details of the technology are available for public scrutiny and totally under the control of the state, fully overseen by legislatures. Citizens have a right to see, through the law, full democratic control of the activities of the transnational tech giants who monetise the gathering, buying, selling and use of personal data. If we see progress in this direction, social contact tracing becomes more acceptable. So while we may acquiesce, reluctantly, to contact tracing, as citizens, mindful of our collective responsibility, we must pressure our law makers to establish institutions that will protect us all.

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