Tackling Covid-19 trace and trace app problems

July 20, 2020 //By Nick Flaherty
Researchers at ETH in Switzerland have analysed the ethical challenges of developing track and trace apps for the Covid-19 pandemic and published guidelines
Researchers at ETH in Switzerland have analysed the ethical challenges of developing track and trace apps for the Covid-19 pandemic and published guidelines

Researchers in Switzerland who helped develop one of the first Covid-19 apps have highlighted the challenges of developing such apps to tackle the pandemic.

The researchers at ETH are now pointing out the ethical challenges that need to be taken into account and the issues that need careful consideration when planning, developing and implementing such tools.

However technical shortcomings, lack of acceptance by the population and inaccurate data are all factors that could hinder their success. In the worst case, digital aids could become a data protection nightmare or lead to discrimination against certain groups of the population say the researchers. The data protection issues are the subject of a court case in the UK, for example, and adoption in Switzerland is half the expcted level.

“These [apps] can naturally be very useful instruments, but you can’t expect miracles from them,” said Effy Vayena, Professor of Bioethics at ETH Zurich. She and her group have published a comprehensive study outlining the ethical and regulatory aspects that must be considered when developing and implementing digital tools.

The study looked at four tool categories: Covid-19 contact tracing apps, including the SwissCovid app co-​developed by EPFL and ETH Zurich; programs that can be used to assess whether an infection is present based on symptoms; apps for checking whether quarantine regulations are being observed; and flow models of the kind that Google uses for mobility reports.

Although such tools are all very different, in each case it is crucial to carefully weigh up the advantages of the technology against the potential disadvantages for the society – for example with regard to data protection. “People sometimes have completely unrealistic expectations of what an app can do, but one single technology can never be the answer to the whole problem. And if the solution we’ve come up with is flawed because we didn’t consider everything carefully enough, then that will

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Report assesses the challenge of Covid-19 track and trace apps

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