October 15, 2020

What Is Known from a Network?

Digital Contact Tracing, Privacy, and Pandemics in the Digital Age
  • Kelsie Nabben

  • Marta Poblet

  • Jan Carlo Barca

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COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis that has sparked unprecedented responses from governments around the world. These responses pose a threat to democratic stability and civil liberties. Digital contact tracing is just one example of a technology-based crisis response measure that has been rapidly deployed but could have far-reaching negative consequences for society. This paper explores the risks and consequences of collecting, collating, and storing digital data on people’s networks of contacts as a crisis response measure. We aim to inform a discussion on the tradeoffs between the value of creating the data for public health outcomes and the risks to public trust in government and democratic stability. We ask, “What are the privacy risks of digital contact tracing, and what consequences does this have for national security and democratic stability?” We analyze the considerations that governments are taking in designing and deploying digital responses to the crisis in the case of digital contact tracing, and we explore what information can be derived from the data on populations and how this information could be misused in ways that harm democratic principles. We argue that government collection of digital contact tracing data poses a serious threat to civil liberties owing to the potential for the data to become a geopolitical target for hacking and interference in democratic stability through information warfare. We then propose a number of technical considerations and policy settings that are transparent, temporary, and proportionate to limit data vulnerabilities and provide a framework to better safeguard civil liberties and democracy in the digital age.

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