“The technological solutions proposed to address the pandemic pose critical questions that implicate complex legal, scientific, and ethical issues.” -Margaret Hu, Professor of Law and International Affairs at Penn State
As the global pandemic surges and technological responses proliferate, questions of data ethics, privacy and security move to the center of conversations about pandemic surveillance. The Technically Right program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, in co-sponsorship with InternetLab, Pennsylvania State University’s Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS), and Penn State Law’s Policy Innovation Lab of Tomorrow (PILOT), hosted an international conference November 12th and 13th, where experts from the United States, Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, and the UK convened to discuss the ethical challenges we face in combating COVID-19.
Professor Hu—whose tenure as Visiting Professor in Ethics at the Kenan Institute from 2018-20 led to the establishment of the Technically Right program in the spring of 2019—underscored the “importance of having international conversations around these issues.”
The need to balance individual rights with efforts to promote the public good in regard to data collection, usage, and storage—not only during the pandemic, but following its wake—served as the argumentative thread that gave continuity to the discussions throughout the conference. Technologies that currently track the spread of the virus raise privacy concerns, and the ways in which information is used and stored put people at risk of potential harms—including usage beyond original intent, such as by law enforcement to target undocumented immigrants in the US who participate in digital contact tracing.
The legal implications of the pandemic are far reaching, especially in terms of the regulations that govern data privacy and security. Els De Busser, Assistant Professor of Cyber Security Governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands, highlighted how member states of the EU, the “perfect students in human rights class,” have “chipped away at the rule of law and human rights” in attempting to stop the virus.
Emerging tracking technologies were seen as “silver bullets in the early days of the pandemic,” noted Natalie Ram, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. However, these technologies have not caught on as much as expected, most notably because of privacy concerns, particularly with regard to ownership of data, the amount of time in which data is stored for, and potential uses beyond pandemic surveillance.
Among the novel uses of these technologies as apply to tracking the spread of the virus, Professor Ram remarked how they could potentially be used for such applications as “fining people for not social distancing,”
As for the effectiveness of digital contact tracing, in order for these technologies to do what they are designed to do, adoption by at least “60% of the population” in any given country needs to happen, noted Maria Soledad, Adjunct Professor in the Faculties of Social and Communication Sciences at the National University of Córdoba (Argentina).
Jolynn Dellinger, Stephen and Janet Bear Visiting Lecturer and Kenan Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics went so far as to argue that we all have an ethical obligation to share our personal data, as a degree of surveillance is essential to defeating this pandemic. However, she also argued that we must pay particularly close attention to how data is used, misused, and abused, especially in relation to vulnerable and marginalized populations. “We don’t want participation . . . to create another arena of harm.”
The conference focused on frustrations and challenges raised by pandemic surveillance and the technologies that make such surveillance possible, but it also brought into focus the more general issues of data ethics, privacy and security that confronted us long before the pandemic and will be with us long after the pandemic. While this moment is an uncertain one, participants agreed that with attention and collaboration, answers to these challenges are within our collective reach.
Technically Right at the Kenan Institute for Ethics advances ethical tech policy and innovation through interdisciplinary research, coursework for undergraduates and graduate students, and convening of scholars and practitioners.