Session Summary on IGF 2021 WS110 The Paradox of Virus Contact Tracing Apps

By Jenna Fung and Pedro de Perdigão Lana

On 7th December 2021, IGF 2021 WS #110 is held both physically in Katowice, Poland, and virtually on ZOOM. The session started with a brief introduction to the session rundown delivered by Emilia Zalewska (onsite moderator). Followed by a 5-minute introduction in the background. Jenna Fung (online moderator) presented the idea that the session came from the COVID-19 pandemic since contact tracing apps were widely used to tackle the situation, especially before vaccination was launched. 

There was a surge of dependence on the Internet, and conflicts between public health concerns and data protection. The workshop was meant to gather perspectives of different regions and attempt to achieve consensual conclusions about the delicate balance through diversification in the discussion.

Highlights of guest speaker panel

Three speakers were invited to the panel of this workshop. They are Patreek Waghre (India), Elliott Mann (Australia), and Janaina Costa (Brazil).

The first speaker, Prateek Wahre began his presentation by elaborating on different approaches adopted by different regions. His sharing also covered the concepts of technology theatre, viability rating framework, and personal considerations. Waghre pointed out that people are over-stressing the technology itself instead of the problem the technology is trying to solve, resulting in a change of balance in government power. 

Since political issues turn into procurement processes, which make public debate more difficult. Waghre suggested some policy considerations, including (1) Equity vs. Expediency, (2) Voluntary vs Mandatory, (3) Operating within a legal framework, (4) Union vs Federal Response, (5) Algorithmic determination of risk/immunity, and (6) Platform power.

Our second speaker, Elliott Mann, illustrated how the contact tracing apps were implemented in Australia. Mann mentioned that there were two types of apps launched, which are at the federal level (named COVIDSafe) and state level. Mann mentioned that some privacy laws were passed in Australia to preserve data related to these apps, but only on one of the levels.

Mann questioned the apps and the stored data when the pandemic situation is not too critical in one’s country. Though he believes the apps are expected to be more useful when cases appear to increase. He also pointed out that the paradox remains, whether we choose the (state-level) app where no privacy laws are applicable but implement well, or aim at the (federal-level) app with some specific and protective regulations but not penetrate that well.

Our last speaker, Janaina Costa, illustrated the situation in Brazil and Latin America. The examples demonstrated the importance of a data protection framework in the implementation of contact-tracing apps and raised that the performance of the app might be relevant to the form of mandatory or voluntary.

Costa pointed out that the main problem was how to create an efficient app out of anonymized data. Data could be used for public policymaking, but note that anonymized and pseudo-anonymized data are different in Brazilian data protection regulation. The law only allows the use of personal data under certain legal justifications, which the benefits of public policy and health are cases that require no user’s consent before the use of their personal data.

The discussion of the panel then switched to the balance between privacy and the benefits of public health. Mann commented that hard privacy laws may be the reason why the federal app in Australia did not work that well, if there is too much regulation about privacy the purpose of the app in getting quality and broad data is defeated. Costa then reassured us that a balance is necessary. With clear and precise rules, personal data involved can be guaranteed not to be used beyond the purpose of its collection.

Key takeaways from breakout group discussions

Participants and speakers then split into 2 groups for a 20-minute breakout group discussion. Breakout group facilitators, Bea Guevarra, and Jenna Fung concluded with the following points from both groups:

First, data minimization. We should minimize data collected while maximizing the benefits of public health. Besides, the concern over ill-intended agents hacking the data of these apps should not be neglected. As a result, cybersecurity is also an area we should be careful with.

Second, transparency & accountability. The models adopted for contact tracing should be open. The intention of the use of data should be clear. The service providers of the apps should avoid making profits from users. To ensure transparency and accountability, multi-stakeholder collaboration in policymaking should be guaranteed. It is important to make the process of developing digital technologies an open one, with public participation and diverse views. Hard work is necessary to achieve positive results here.

Third, inclusivity & trust. Making the apps mandatory creates inequality with people who don’t have smartphones. Governments shouldn’t neglect issues of people’s access to the Internet & device, and digital literacy before imposing the use of contact tracing or vaccine passports. To Avoid politicization and to make people voluntarily adhere to the apps.

Fourth, public awareness. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders to connect with one another to educate the public about the implementation of the technology, the potential issues inherent, and the importance of getting multi-stakeholder involved in the policy-making process. Guevarra highlighted the importance of forums like the IGF that provide a platform for us to learn collaboratively from each other.

Lastly, our 3 speakers made the final remarks. Mann highlighted how this kind of discussion is important to broaden the views of those interested in this subject, due to the high variance around the world and new issues arising in this rapidly advancing world. Costa stated her remarks on reminding the audience not to get too distracted by contact tracing apps or vaccine passports (certificates) from the rising power of governments with these policies for the naming of protecting public health interests.