New Creative Commons Paper Addresses Ethical Hurdles to Contact Tracing Adoption


Contact tracing applications and technologies (CTA/CTT), which often leverage phone-location data, hold tremendous potential to help mitigate COVID-19’s spread. But it is clear now that we were not ready-from multi-faceted business, operational, legal, technical and social perspectives-to embrace CTA/CTT quickly and widely enough to maximize their effectiveness.

How could these innovations be better leveraged to save more lives? This was the thinking behind the development and release of IEEE Use Case–Criteria for Addressing Ethical Challenges in Transparency, Accountability, and Privacy of CTA/CTT.

“We have intentionally created the ethical evaluation and verification criteria with the impact of COVID-19 in mind, but also anticipating that there will be pandemics in the future,” reads this publicly available paper from The Ethics Certification Program for Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (ECPAIS). “Our intent was to provide an evaluative framework for now and the future that will enable solutions that are ethical (with focus on TAP [transparency, accountability and privacy] as leading indicators of systems which are human-rights and human values-centric), are diverse and inclusive, and which seek to protect all of humanity and not to harm it.”

Questions of Public Trust

Maximizing CTA/CTT effectiveness for helping keep viruses in check, such as COVID-19, is fraught with complexity and challenges.

For one thing, CTA/CTT are dependent on a certain minimum percentage of a population (perhaps 60 percent or more) to install an application on their personal devices, as well as to execute any requisite operational system (OS) updates. This factor alone entails a number of requirements-that the affected population have devices, that devices are sufficiently sophisticated, that the individuals feel confident enough with the technologies to perform any necessary installation and operations, etc. Even for nations and organizations that are in position to mandate CTA/CTT usage, such complications can render wide-scale individual compliance unlikely.

Then there is the massive challenge of public trust. In the COVID-19 pandemic, engagement rates with CTA/CTT systems have typically failed to reach even 20 percent for target populations.

It’s not surprising that the public is concerned in its utilization of CTA/CTT. These systems are based on recent emergent technologies and raise profound ethical considerations. Sticky questions abound:

  • What happens to the data that’s been collected?
  • Can data be transferred?
  • Is data being held in a form or location that is susceptible to breach?
  • Who’s accountable and responsible?
  • What other agencies will have access?
  • How easily could parties take actions that exceed users’ original authorization?

It is plausible to imagine scenarios in which CTA/CTT-related technologies could be used to monitor people for purposes without much connection to pandemic-driven contact tracing. The public trepidation is understandable.

From Principles to Practice

Promoting ethical integrity in CTA/CTT design, development, implementation, operation, maintenance, retirement and regulation can fuel public trust in the systems and inform industry norms that help governments, health agencies, businesses and other institutions achieve more successful system rollouts.

The ECPAIS effort sought insights from wide-ranging domains-legal, medical, technical, psychological, societal, governance and cybersecurity, among others-on the ethical issues around CTA/CTT. The new IEEE paper that the ECPAIS community created details verification criteria around the rights and benefits that individuals may expect of CTA/CTT in three key dimensions:

  • Transparency-These criteria address issues such as comprehensibility to a person of traditional education and experience, as well as full disclosure of inputs, process, outputs and outcomes of activities.
  • Accountability-How can the organizations and people driving CTA/CTT be held responsible for their roles and decisions that impact the inputs, process, outputs and outcomes of integrated systems?
  • Privacy-Factors are defined around protecting the private sphere of life and public identity of individuals or groups so that their dignity is upheld.

“(M)ere technical feasibility is necessary, but is alone insufficient to assure the broad adoption needed for CTA/CTT success,” reads the IEEE paper. “… In the opinion of the EPCAIS CTA/CTT team, successful and ethical adoption may only be achieved through TAP, i.e., trustworthy and transparent practices, and by demonstrating integrity in accountability, while safeguarding human privacy, autonomy, agency, dignity, and efficacy both now and in the years to come.”

Ongoing Opportunities to Contribute

IEEE is uniquely positioned to apply its knowledge and resources to the complex CTA/CTT issue, given its status as an independent, not-for-profit organization, its global network of innovators and established practices for assembling multi-disciplinary teams to deliver collaborative results. ECPAIS, which IEEE initiated in November 2018, is designed to quickly iterate the elements and variables of candidate technological solutions to shared problems.

Indeed, its work on coalescing feedback from diverse expertise and social perspectives globally continues, toward the goal of always refining the criteria for CTA/CTT coverage, completeness, integrity and value. Furthermore, IEEE intends to work with organizations to initiate case studies around effective verification of the criteria for CTA/CTT applications.

IEEE Use Case–Criteria for Addressing Ethical Challenges in Transparency, Accountability, and Privacy of CTA/CTT is available to download at no charge.

Author: Ali G. Hessami, Process Architect, IEEE Ethics Certification Program for Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (ECPAIS)

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