Bioethical debates about privacy, big data, and public health surveillance have not sufficiently engaged the perspectives of those being surveilled. The data justice framework suggests that big data applications have the potential to create disproportionate harm for socially marginalized groups. Using examples from our research on HIV surveillance for individuals incarcerated in jails, we analyze ethical issues in deploying big data in public health surveillance.
We conducted qualitative, semi-structured interviews with 24 people living with HIV who had been previously incarcerated in county jails about their perspectives on and experiences with HIV surveillance, as part of a larger study to characterize ethical considerations in leveraging big data techniques to enhance continuity of care for incarcerated people living with HIV.
Most participants expressed support for the state health department tracking HIV testing results and viral load data. Several viewed HIV surveillance as a violation of privacy, and several had actively avoided contact from state public health outreach workers. Participants were most likely to express reservations about surveillance when they viewed the state’s motives as self-interested. Perspectives highlight the mistrust that structurally vulnerable people may have in the state’s capacity to act as an agent of welfare. Findings suggest that adopting a nuanced, context-sensitive view on surveillance is essential.
Establishing trustworthiness through interpersonal interactions with public health personnel is important to reversing historical legacies of harm to racial minorities and structurally vulnerable groups. Empowering stakeholders to participate in the design and implementation of data infrastructure and governance is critical for advancing a data justice agenda, and can offset privacy concerns. The next steps in advancing the data justice framework in public health surveillance will be to innovate ways to represent the voices of structurally vulnerable groups in the design and governance of big data initiatives.